Shortly after meeting River Song and losing her in the Library, the 10th Doctor and Donna are trying to distract themselves by gallivanting around as space tourists. The TARDIS lands in a New Zealand forest, where scuffling in the underbrush soon reveals the presence of a race of intelligent aliens, posing as the national bird, who are fighting a nanobot plague.
The Doctor and Donna sat on comfy camp chairs pulled up to the open doors of the TARDIS. Between them, a small folding table carried the remains of afternoon tea: mismatched mugs, a nearly-empty self-heating teapot from the planet Vrangipanius, and a plate of crumbs where once half a dozen scones with jam had resided.
"Mmm, did I not tell you that back-alley bakery in Inverness was an eternal treasure of the ages?" The Doctor kissed his fingertips and considered again. "Well, at least in 1895 it was. I tell you, I dread the day when I go back there and find I've already eaten everything they ever made."
Donna turned her glare on him. "Honestly, you men are all alike. You bring me to see the Pillars of Creation and all you can think about is your stomach." She resumed her absorption of the Eagle Nebula, where coloured gas swirled in rivers across the blackness of space. Even from five hundred light years away the structure dwarfed everything around it.
"You've been staring at that thing for hours. Shall we go and do something dangerous?"
"Did you have something in mind?"
The Doctor grinned. "Now that you ask, actually...I've been wanting to visit the fire beings of Antares. Their art is said to be stunning. You just have to stay out of reach or you might burn up." He took a sip from his mug and made a face, then chucked the cold remains out the door.
"Tut tut, Doctor. Now some spacefaring scientist is going to come across molecules of tea with milk and sugar, hundreds of years from now."
The Doctor's eyes widened. "Ohhh...so that's what that was..."
Donna stood, shut the doors after one last look into the heart of the nebula, and folded her chair. "Well then, let's get going. Fire art, eh?"
The Doctor lifted a trapdoor in the floor, dumped the tea tray into the chute, pondered a moment, then sent the table and his chair after it. Donna shrugged and dropped hers in too. Somehow, the TARDIS would put things back where they belonged.
"It's not really called Antares, you know." The Doctor leaped to the console and began twiddling with levers, dials and pumps. "That was just for your benefit. The locals call it Frimidianaricum."
"Aha." Donna wasn't sure where Antares was in relation to Earth anyway, but she wasn't about to say so. "Say, Doctor..."
He froze and gave her his full attention."Yes?"
"That professor. River Song. Did you figure out how she knew you?"
The smile melted off the Doctor's face as he gripped a handle until his knuckles whitened. "Yeah. Yeah I did." He flung the lever down.
The TARDIS jolted violently and Donna staggered across the floor until she found a railing to hang onto. "Typical. Don't wanna talk, send us spinning into the vortex..."
With one last almighty jolt, the TARDIS came to a standstill. Donna raised her head from the brace position and chanced a look around.
The Doctor stood at the console, silent and still, eyes closed, for a moment more, then he snatched up his long brown coat and wriggled into it. "You may want a hoodie," he said, nodding at the coat-stand.
"Hoodie? To see fire art?" Donna didn't think that sounded like a good match.
He grimaced. "That's just it. We didn't end up at Antares at all. You know the TARDIS...likes to do her own thing."
"So where are we?"
No reply was forthcoming, but the Doctor gave a forced smile and gestured to the door. "Let's take a look."
Donna grabbed her hoodie as she passed its place, and cracked open the door. Outside was a black night, filled with the sounds of rustling leaves and creaking branches. A cool breeze slid over her and chilled her skin. She turned back to the Doctor and was about to speak, but he had his deadly serious face on. She shrugged and stepped out. He would follow when he felt like it.
Leaf litter crunched under her boots. Donna sniffed the air. She'd never smelled a forest like this before - it must be a very strange and distant planet. There was no light except for the stars that glittered through the canopy not too far over her head. "Doctor," she called softly, "we're going to need torches--"
He pushed a light into her hand and came to stand beside her. She shivered, and remembered the hoodie, then slipped it over her head. The Doctor shut the TARDIS door with a click, and rested his fingertips on it. "Why here?"
"Why? Where's here?" Donna shone her torch in a circle and saw only strange-looking trees and bushes. The stillness was starting to get to her; if not quite creepy, she had a definite sense that they were being watched.
A cry split the night. Like a human scream, yet different enough that it couldn't possibly be, it echoed around what must be a valley between hillsides. Donna flinched and her hand went to her heart.
The Doctor tensed and whipped out his sonic screwdriver. He aimed it ahead, where the sound had come from, and activated a pulse. Examining the readout, he began to mutter.
"All right. Enough of the silent treatment. Tell me what's going on!" Donna poked him in the ribs.
He frowned at her. "Earth. 2014. Southern hemisphere. New Zealand, I think."
Donna relaxed a little. "Oh. That's okay, then."
"Well, it would be completely normal, if not for the readings..."
"One humanoid and several non-humans approaching on foot." The Doctor paused to slap his screwdriver against his hand. He read it again and shook his head. "And they have a sonic device much like this one."
"What? How close?" Donna gripped her light and pointed it into the trees.
The Doctor didn't need to answer - many footsteps sounded in the forest, and the next moment, a crowd of hairy, foot-high creatures with incredibly long noses emerged into the little clearing. In their midst, a blonde-curled woman in a white sheepskin jacket, wielding a sonic screwdriver.
"Hello, Sweetie," she said.
"But that's-" Donna spluttered, pointing at the apparition.
The Doctor narrowed his eyes. "River Song. I know."
Donna was certain that River had died in the Library, although the Doctor had tried to explain that her soul was saved in the computer. Even if that was so, her body had expired and that sounded a lot like dying to Donna.
"What's the matter?" asked River. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
"Not too far from the--" truth, Donna was about to say, but the Doctor shushed her.
"Timeline stuff. Wibbly-wobbly." He shot her a stern look before straightening again towards River.
Donna took the opportunity to examine the little creatures surrounding River. Their noses were at least twice as long as their legs, and indeed they were using it almost like a third foot that stretched out in front. Little beady black eyes and whiskers rounded out the face.
Then she blinked and looked again. "Are those birds?"
River snorted. "That's what they pass for in these parts. Anyway, thanks for coming. I appreciate the support, even if I didn't ask for it."
"Yet," said the Doctor, sweeping his screwdriver across the quiet crowd.
"What do you mean?" asked Donna and River at the same time. They exchanged disapproving glances.
"You didn't ask for my help...yet." He reached up and leaned a hand on the TARDIS's doorframe. "The instruments show very clearly that someone manipulated my navigation to bring us here."
River frowned. "I see. I didn't yet, but I will."
"Looks that way, doesn't it? But I'd love to know how you got so good at Timelord technology." He eyed the sonic screwdriver on her belt.
She arched an eyebrow at him. "Well, maybe you're about to tell me. Enough chit-chat, we've got work to do."
Donna edged to the Doctor's side and whispered. "If those aren't birds...what are they?"
He brought the screwdriver up to his face. "It's a pretty good impression of a bird. Just missed a few things - can't fly, for one. The feathers are really hair, and..." He slapped it in his hand and looked again. "Bone marrow. Like mammals. Birds have light, hollow bones, but these fellows don't."
"These fellows can speak for themselves," came a voice from near their feet.
Donna repressed a holler and backed herself up against the TARDIS door. She dropped her gaze, wanting to cover her eyes but not wanting to look stupid. The not-birds had raised their long noses - beaks? - and stared at the two newcomers.
The Doctor's face lit up with delight. "Oh, I say, you are gorgeous! Hello down there. By all means, speak." He spread his hands.
"We greet you in the name of the Thrikeshaw, who were once all but wiped out in the nanobot wars of Jalopherum. In desperation, we reduced our essence to DNA and seeded ourselves here in an accelerated evolution pod. Thus we developed into these forms in just a few thousand years. We have survived - we were content."
As he spoke, Donna reflected that the voice sounded more like a cartoon character than anything else. It was hard to take seriously. Then again, a talking bird was probably one of the less weird things she'd seen in her time with the Doctor.
The Doctor stuck his hands in his coat pockets. "So what's the problem then?"
The leader stepped forward and craned his neck up. "The nanobots have found us."
River fixed the Doctor with a gaze. He gaped first at the birds, then at her.
"Nanobots, that's bad, right?" hissed Donna.
"Just a bit, yeah. Would have taken over the universe starting from Jalopherum if the Shadow Proclamation hadn't ordered a forcefield set up around that entire system."
The Doctor turned back to River. "How did you get here?"
"Vortex manipulator." She raised her wrist. "Easy peasy. But come on, it's not safe out here."
River turned and led the way into the dark forest. The crowd of birds picked their way after her as Donna watched, fascinated. Left, right, beak. Left, right, beak. Maybe they used to have three legs in their prior form.
The Doctor glanced at Donna and strode off after River. Donna huffed once under her breath and followed. Nothing but a torch, and she was pretty sure that wouldn't help against nanobots.
"You will be safe with us," a cartoony voice warbled from close by.
Donna yelped and thought she heard giggling. "Don't frighten me like that! I nearly died." She looked down at the speaker. "Uh...I'm Donna. Pleased to meet you." She knelt and extended a hand, then almost thought better of it. A bird can't shake hands. But the creature calmly laid its beak into her palm.
A sense of great history came over Donna, a sense of loss and survival against huge odds, and finally a sense of this particular creature's character. Female, fun-loving, single...single? She slipped her hand away. "You're telepathic!"
"Only by touch. My name is Karanga, the song of welcome."
"Donna!" The Doctor called from some distance ahead. "Don't get left behind!"
She and the bird followed along. "So...Karanga. The people around here think you are real birds?"
"Oh yes. Once they even hunted us for food, but now we are venerated as a national icon. Kiwi, they call us, for the sound we make. I'm afraid we haven't learned proper birdsong."
Donna peered down at her new friend. "Hang on...Kiwi. Isn't that a hairy brown fruit?"
"Well." Karanga laughed and fluttered her tiny wings, indicating her own plump hairy body. "What do you think they were named after?"
"How about that." Donna shook her head slightly and worked on catching up to the Doctor and River.
Hurrying to catch up with the others, Donna and Karanga came up behind the Doctor and River. He was gesticulating wildly. "Yes, but how did you get tangled up in all this?"
"I really can't tell you that, dear."
"Gah!" He stomped onwards. "All right, well, can you at least tell me what you've done already to help?"
"Analysed the captured nanobot, created a reader that unpacks its programming and commands, and set that to processing while we came to get you. That do for starters?"
The Doctor stopped in his tracks. "What? You called me here - will call me here - because of a lone nanobot? You realise I can make all of this never happen."
"Oh? How's that, then?" River's voice was heavy with sarcasm.
"Easy-peasy. I just won't tell you how to summon the TARDIS."
"Really, Sweetie, I thought you'd know better than that." She flicked open the heavy leather console on her wrist and slowly began to tap and twist its controls. "I guess I didn't learn that from you. Not today, anyway. Besides, I'm the one who can still make this unhappen. I haven't decided yet if I need you. So if I never make the call..." She flipped the lid shut. "Zip. Nothing happens. Although, since you're here, I obviously do decide in the positive. Always lovely to see you, anyway." River reached over and fondled his chin with a soft laugh and he jerked back, speechless and scowling as he rubbed it.
Donna was trying to make sense of the strange exchange when she heard a sound beside her that might be throat-clearing. She looked down. "They have known each other a long time?" asked Karanga.
"Actually, I'm not sure," said Donna. "Sometimes it seems that way, but he's always surprised to see her." And she's supposed to be dead, she thought, but didn't say. Some things were just too weird to share with someone you just met, even if that someone was an alien pretending to be a bird and thus should generally have no problem with weirdness.
"Time travellers," said Karanga. "Easy for things to get muddled up."
"I suppose." Donna decided she'd have to consider it later. She bent to step through a gap between two leaning branches, and gaped at the sight of the Doctor vanishing calmly into a large doorway in the hillside.
The kiwi birds followed after him, all except Karanga, who waited patiently at her side. "This is our base. You will be safe here - and this is where Mrs. Song has set up the machinery."
"Mrs. Song, hmm?" Donna stuck out her lower lip and nodded slowly. "So she's married," she muttered to herself. She'd save that up to tell the Doctor later, assuming she ever got him to herself again. The way that woman just wrapped him around her finger! Well, Donna was certainly not averse to giving him a dressing-down when he needed it, but not in a way that suggested she wanted him. Ewww.
"Enter, please," said Karanga, and pointed with her beak at the dark hole.
A dank smell assailed Donna's nostrils and she reached a finger to the wet concrete wall. "Did you build this?"
"No," said Karanga, "the network of tunnels was already here. Some from the gold mining that began almost two centuries ago, and some from the railways that were built through the hills to carry the gold away."
Donna peered at the tiny green glowing dots that illumined their pathway. "What kind of lights are those?"
"Glowworms. Now hush, or they'll go out."
The Doctor and River continued their conversation unabated and Donna noticed the glowworms dimming as they passed by. She took care with her steps and paid attention to what they were saying.
"That war could have been avoided," said the Doctor. "So easily. If the populace had ousted a few greedy people from government...but isn't that always the way?"
"There would have been other greedy people to take their place." River's voice was chilly. "Believe me, I've seen more of that sort of behaviour than I like. Even in myself. There was the time I-"
"You what?" The Doctor turned his head to her as they strolled on.
"Oh...nothing." River fell silent.
The Doctor sighed. "All those races involved in the fight for that one strategic planet."
"What do you know about the nanobots?" River asked.
"Well, the fighting was so bad that most of the forces involved were either defeated or turned tail and ran home. It came down to two armies. The invading Veton, at a fraction of their initial strength but still formidable, and the Thrikeshaw, our friends here, who were defending their own planet."
"I know that part," said River. "Then the Veton released the nanobots and the Thrikeshaw managed to get their DNA ark away just in time, leaving the planet for the conquerors."
"Ah, but the conquerors had little joy in their victory." The Doctor's voice sounded sad and tired. "The nanobots were self-multiplying and their controllability failed. They destroyed their own creators' fleet, leaving the Veton homeworld without protection."
"So nobody got the planet in the end."
"Nope. It's just a mass of writhing nanobots from the star to the forcefield."
"That's terrible!" whispered Donna to Karanga. "It must have been so hard to give up your home."
Karanga wiggled her head. "It was not I myself, nor any of us here. We have only the telepathic memories passed down to us in the DNA. That is loss enough for anyone to bear. But we are changed now. This is our home."
Donna looked up and realised the hallway was emptying into a door on the left. River and The Doctor were already out of sight, and the birds continued to follow. She reached the opening and poked her head around, completely unprepared for what she would see there. "Oh, my giddy aunt!"
The soaring cavern appeared ancient, shored up with old timbers in places. But what took Donna's breath away were the shiny high-tech consoles that filled the room. Kiwis sat at screens and tapped on interfaces with their beaks.
Karanga brushed against Donna's exposed ankle and sent what could only be described as a telepathic smile. "Welcome to the Thrikeshaw nerve centre."
River led the entourage deeper into the room. Near the back they approached a structure that buzzed faintly, emanating a bluish glow from a small translucent sphere that hovered on top of a boxy device. The Doctor got down on hands and knees, for it was well below his eye level, and squinted into its centre.
A drip fell squarely on Donna's nose, and she clutched her chest for a moment. Then she looked up at the damp ceiling, and noted that all the computers had hoods to protect them.
"Easier to look at it here," said River, and unfolded a screen. "There's a camera in the base."
"Oh," said the Doctor, and pulled his glasses out of an inside pocket.
River turned on the screen and Donna watched, fascinated, as a multi-legged creature appeared. River pointed. "It's damaged, so that's why we were able to catch and isolate it." She tapped the image.
The Doctor peered through his glasses. "And why it isn't reproducing itself." He pointed at some shiny flecks that floated like dust motes. "I see it has managed to produce waste, though."
"Sparkly waste," remarked Donna to Karanga, because she felt she'd been quiet for too long.
Karanga chortled. "It's gold."
Donna started to laugh, but the Doctor nodded. "Certainly not the only way gold comes into being, but that is pure elemental Aurum."
"You have got to be kidding me." Donna gaped around at the serious faces. "But how do they do that?"
River sighed dramatically. "That's a complex question, and an answer for another day. We have weightier issues to deal with at the moment."
"Oh, yeah," said Donna under her breath. "I bet the universe needs saving, or something equally grave."
River shot her a look. Not a harsh or condescending look, as Donna might have expected in reply to her sarcasm, but a sympathetic smile that held depths of seriousness. There was more to her than met the eye.
While the Doctor and River examined the readouts, Karanga began to explain. "We only gained our sentience after these mines were depleted and closed down, and we thought they were ordinary gold mines. But since we found this bot, we became suspicious - that a colony of them may have left the gold behind. We can never know, because they're gone, and their waste is no different to any other gold."
The talkative bird fell into silence - thank goodness, Donna thought, it was like school all over again. She blinked at the glinting flakes that swirled inside the forcefield, barely visible to the naked eye, and slowly shook her head. "They poop gold."
The Doctor nodded. "The star system they're trapped in? By now it's got to be at least 50% gold. See why we have to keep it under wraps?"
"Half the space of a system turned to gold. Plenty of folks'd want a chunk of that," said Donna.
"And," said River, "no one could get at it without freeing the bots."
Donna frowned. "Is that what happened then? To let this one out?"
"Probably," sighed the Doctor, "but it won't be the only one if that's so."
"So what's the worst case scenario?" asked Donna. "How far would they be able to spread without a ship?" Immediately she realised the silliness of the question, but Karanga, ever the schoolteacher, was already answering.
"They can join together and build a ship, so that no place would be safe from them."
The Doctor straightened and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "The real question is, how did this one get here? And are there any more?"
"Hold on, look here." River bent over the readouts. "It's been transmitting on an ultra-ultra high frequency."
"Ah, but is it doing it blindly, or does it know that there are others?" put in the Doctor.
River pressed her lips together for a moment. "We must assume that there are more, and they are coming."
The Doctor strode around in a wide circle, or at least as wide as he could manage in between all the birds and people and equipment. "So, extrapolating from what we know, the likely scenario is that someone -"
"Let's call him the Pirate," put in Donna. "Arrr!"
River rolled her eyes. "How exciting."
The Doctor gave them both a brief intense stare, as if questioning their sanity, before continuing. "Someone managed to not only find out about the nanobots and their gold-making propensities, but also discovered their location, travelled through space to get there, and had the technical know-how to actually break through that forcefield and reseal it afterwards. And believe me, those Shadow Proclamation forcefields carry some clout."
"How do we know they sealed it up again?" asked Karanga.
"Because they didn't take over the universe yet."
"Oh, great," said Donna. "So we're on borrowed time."
"It's not so bad," said the Doctor. "Well...at least, not as bad as it could be. Not yet." He bounced up and down on his heels and pouted.
River huffed. "The hole's only getting deeper, love. Best just stop talking until that genius brain of yours gets itself untangled."
The Doctor gaped, fish-like, and started a couple of words that ended up not going anywhere.
River ignored him and turned to Donna. "We're definitely safe for now, my dear. Using a code reader, I was able to determine that this bot was part of a smaller swarm after it left the forcefield. The small swarm is still growing, but obviously not at the sheer volume of the other."
Donna gulped. "Okay, let me get this straight. Someone - our pirate - opened the forcefield, let some nasty creepies out, and closed it up again. So what's the problem - aside from tut-tutting about a morally corrupt thief?"
"Ah," said the Doctor, but River cut in.
"Because what pirate would be content with a tiny portion of that astounding hoard?
The Doctor finally regained his power of speech. "The question is, how big is that new swarm?"
"Well," said River, "I was hoping for some help from that great big head of yours. My swarm sensor needs some Timelord tweaking."
"Okay. Show me."
River tapped a pattern on the screen and a complicated code filled it and continued to scroll. The Doctor said no more for the time being, but bent over the display.
"Honestly, you two are like an old married couple." said Donna.
"You're very perceptive, bright one." River turned an appraising gaze on her.
"There," said the Doctor. "I've synced the algorithm matrix to the polarising capacitor." He waved the buzzing sonic screwdriver over it. "and upped the frequency range to tthe widest known." He grinned. "Now you should be able to pick up just about everything in the universe."
"Thats a bit rich, even from you," said River, and flicked back from the code to operational view. Her jaw dropped fractionally and Donna moved to peer over her shoulder.
"What is it?"
"We really can see all of known space on this thing. Was that necessary? Just the outer galaxy arm would have been enough."
The Doctor tried unsuccessfully to repress a smile.
"You naughty boy, you'll use up all their power," said River, inclining her head towards their hosts.
"Let's hurry and find what we're looking for, then," said Karanga from her spot on the table.
Stars and planets whooshed by on the screen. All appeared in comforting shades of blue.
"Inputting coordinates," said River. The display turned as if it were the viewscreen of a spaceship, so abruptly that Donna fought a shred of vertigo at the sense of whirling in space. It streaked past stars and slowed as it zoomed in on a dot that grew to swallow the view, alive with red.
"Okay, we found our golden star," said River.
"Actually, it's a yellow dwarf," said the Doctor. "Not unlike Sol."
Donna peered at the reading. Aside from solid red there was another cluster of it, moving through space some distance from the mother system. "Look at that," she said, pointing.
"Yep, that's the new swarm. Escapees."
"But what's that other thing chasing it?" asked Donna. The new object had only a spot of red in a smooth blue shape.
"I think we found our pirate, said the Doctor, "and whoever it is, he's pretty close to the forcefield. He could try to break it open again at any time, which we do not want to happen."
Donna set her fists on her hips. "There's only one thing for it." She turned to River.
River nodded, eyes blazing. "To the TARDIS!"
[I am in no way claiming ownership of the Doctor or the TARDIS. These belong to the BBC. This page, the photos, and the Doctor Who stories I have written are for hobby parody only.]