Monday, 21 February 2011

The Clockwork Dreamer...

So, after a delay, series 3a is finally upon us! I've decided to put Nic's story up first as there was no real reason for Humanity's End to kick off than any other story (and that would have made three of mine in a row!) and this one's a belter. Hope you enjoy it and what Nic's done with the germ of an idea given to him.

As for the rest of the series, new stories will appear on successive Mondays, and there will be a little break after story 6 before series 3b starts.

The Clockwork Dreamer
Sings Songs to the Stars

by Nic Ford

Through the misty, age-thickened glass of the porthole, he could see stars.
     His mind, so analytical, recorded the precession: the minute difference in each star's position relative to the others day on day, denoting the passing of aeons as a physical phenomenon, a mere artefact of the baser three dimensions. His mind watched, noted, measured and recorded.
     But his soul sang.
     Pulling away from the porthole, he gently lowered his wheezing body to the floor of the tiny vessel which carried him, and turned to its control panel. Governors whirled, regulating systems with the occasional and gentle release of steam. Electric filaments buzzed to life, revealing secrets of the craft's operation in the form of amber, glowing numerals which then faded back into nothing as the moments passed. For no discernable reason in particular, a bell rang.
     Ticker-tape issued from a brass slot, slowly and mechanically revealing the state of the vessel's systems. He read the report and ingested its content: all was well. Course was being followed, within an allowable margin of error. Resources were being conserved. The mission was going to plan.
     A small adjustment was appropriate, he judged. Charging his own internal mechanisms, he again raised himself from the floor to reach and pull a lever, to turn a dial slightly to the left, to engage a valve or two in the appropriate engines.
     The craft, microscopically, turned. He was happy with the result. He could disengage for a short while. A year or two.
     Lowered again to the floor, he decoupled the prisms that focussed light onto his primary visual interfaces, and the world went dark. He separated his auditory capture systems from the sensory substrate, and silence fell. He was alone. No longer navigating the craft, no longer acting the homunculus, the deus ex machina, the ghost in the machine. He was alone to dream.
     To dream!
     That new gift, from long-gone and unknowing benefactors. The reverie. His mind sank, slowly, from consciousness into the dream of his new/old life.
     And his soul sang.

"Aw, ma heid!"
    Jamie awoke with a start, the pain coursing around his skull a sharper call to wakefulness than any cockerel back with the clan. His ran a hand through the coarse, wiry hair that covered his scalp, rubbing hard and pulling at the mop in a vain attempt to get inside the very head itself, better to deal with the source of his discomfort. The knuckles of his other hand scraped at his eye sockets, to physically clear the rheum. Bleary eyed, he tried to make out where he was.
     It was a curious space. New-fangled and made of wood, with fittings cast from blood-metal – no, iron, that was what the Doctor had said to call it. The room was long – far longer than it was wide – and its ceiling was curved across the shorter length, with wooden doors at each end. Like living in a mine-working, the Scotsman thought. Except uncomfortably warm and muggy, not dank and damp as he might have expected.
    The wooden walls, painted a dark and dirty yellowed cream, were set with windows for almost their entire length. For the life of him, however, Jamie had no idea why: beyond each was nothing but a depthless black. A mine within a mine, then.
    The only sources of light in the room were a number of small, flickering gas lamps set between the windows. A miraculous technology, this should have seemed to the Scotsman; but he had been travelling with the Doctor for so long, and seen so many other miracles, that this particular magick was somehow tarnished. Despite their illumination, an unwelcome addition to the overbearing heat of the place was all he thought of them now.

     Beneath the windows, along the longer walls, were cushioned benches running the entire length. One of these he had somehow come to be sitting upon, and for some reason it took him a while to notice that there were other people sitting on them too.
     Blinking, Jamie struggled to focus his eyes on the room's inhabitants – inhabitants, he would have sworn, who were not inhabiting the place a moment previously. And a curious bunch they were, the Scotsman thought. A pale child in a white, starched dress, holding a stuffed toy in the shape of a monkey. Beside her – the child's guardian? – a gaunt young woman in a long, plain skirt and severe white blouse, dark hair up in a bun and with the saddest eyes Jamie had ever seen. A little further along, an older woman, a dowager, dressed in finery, all feathers and jewels, doing nothing to hide the disdain she felt for… well, for everything, probably, Jamie pondered, considering the glare she had just bestowed upon him.
    And at the far side of the opposite bench, a short man in grey, baggy trousers, a dark and prim jacket over a white shirt and crimson waistcoat, with some kind of tall hat pulled down over his face as he snored.
    Jamie smiled.

     "Doctor!" he called. "Thank goodness! Where are…?"
     But he stopped suddenly. There was something wrong. What was it? What was it? For a moment, he failed to put his finger on it – but then… yes! A beard! Poking out from beneath the hat was a beard – and was that a cigar?! When had Jamie ever known the Doctor to have either of those?
     He gulped. Not the Doctor? So, where was he? For all his spirit, his willingness to fight the good fight whatever the foe and wherever the battle… till now, he'd always had the Doctor's guidance to lead him. It was a different matter entirely to face unknown adversaries alone.
     "Whatever are you staring at, boy?" the dowager suddenly demanded. Her accent was nasal, superior… and English. Jamie almost laughed.
     Sassenachs! He knew how to deal with Sassenachs!

A hand stroked at the mahogany of the small craft's control console, before its owner pensively turned it for inspection. There was a fine layer of dust across the finger tips. The owner creased his brow: this was incongruous, at best. They were in space – deep space, if the view through the brass portholes were to be trusted. And the craft appeared uninhabited, at least by anything living. So, what was the source of the dust?
    Time. That was the only answer: the dust had accrued over the aeons, as the materials of the craft naturally succumbed to the bombardment of stellar radiation, of elementary particles, of the microscopic specks of dust already in existence. A slow, slow process, considering the materials in question were largely brass, copper and polished wood. Tens – if not hundreds – of millennia.

     He turned, to look at what he could only assume were the operator of the craft. It was an artefact itself, small and compact but discrete from the ship it inhabited, with something of a mechanical body, something of a mechanical head. It was lying on the floor in at best a fugue state, dormant if not dead.
    Beside it was the greatest cause of consternation, however: a man, lying as unnaturally still as the operator itself. He bent to the ground, checked the prostrate man's pulse. It was there, thank the spheres, albeit weak and so, so slow: the breathing was equally shallow.
    He gently laid the man's hand back to the ground, and stood back upright, stroking his chin.
    "Oh, Jamie!" said the Doctor. "Whatever have I got you into this time?"

"All right, missus," Jamie replied. "I'm no' staring. Just wondering where I am, that's all."
    The dowager frowned at him with further disdain, and gestured at a sign on the wall. Jamie coloured a little, but tried to make the best of it.
    "Aw, right. Yes, so we're…" The Scotsman squinted at the sign. "I mean, I'm not… I cannae…"
    "He cannot read, grandmamma!" said the child, glaring at Jamie with baleful eyes. "He is an ignoramus, as well as an oaf!"
    "I do apologise," said the governess. "The child does not mean it. She is tired, and…"
    "I do! I do!" shouted the girl. "Every word! He does not have his letters, and he's stupid!"
    "Hush now," said the dowager. "It doesn't do to let them know we know their weaknesses."
    Jamie reddened more. "Why, of all th'…!" he started, but he was interrupted by the governess, apparently eager to stop any further quarrelling.
    "We are on a train, of course," she said. "The new London Metropolitan Railway."
    "A… a train?" Jamie asked. He had heard of those. The Doctor had once tried to explain to him some small fraction of the advances that science had brought after his time, and the steam engine had created an indelible image in his mind. "One o' those great iron kettles on wheels, y'mean?" He looked around the stationary carriage. "Should we not be moving, then? An' why's it under the earth?"
    The dowager glowered, and turned her eyes to read the notice again by way of exiting the conversation.
    "We are in a tunnel," sighed the governess. "Caught fast between Liverpool Street and the Aldgate."
    "And we've been here for ages!" shouted the child. "It feels like forever, and I hate, hate, hate it!"
    "It has been an age," agreed the governess.
    "I hate it!" shouted the child again, and she hit the seat beside her with the toy monkey so hard that Jamie almost thought he heard it whimper.

The Doctor knelt beside the prostrate Scotsman's head, spreading the fingers of his left hand wide and gently placing the palm against the other's temple. Calming his breathing to an unnatural shallowness, he looked upwards towards the crimson cast-iron arches that braced the roof and outer shell of the craft.
    "Hold on, Jamie," he murmured, and slowly closed his eyes, concentrating hard on the process of joining his mind to the Scotsman's.

The small man sitting opposite Jamie in the carriage, up till now apparently sleeping soundly, raised the hat from his face and looked around. He had small, dark eyes, glinting in the gas light with either mischief or malevolence, Jamie was not sure which. The cigar on which he was chomping was now revealed to be of such a size that the Scotsman was convinced the internals of the hat must be ridden with fumes; but the little man looked none the worse for it. Rather, it looked as though he were thriving on the pungent atmosphere.
    "Seventeen minutes before the hour," he observed, examining a large brass pocket watch that he had pulled from his waistcoat. "And still we have not moved. Nevertheless" – and here he addressed the child – "the steam engine is a miracle of our modern age, and you'd do well to remember that in your lessons."
    The child visibly harrumphed in her seat, and pulled the hapless monkey into her angry, crossed arms. But the little man turned away from her and, grinning, fixed Jamie with a steel-cold glint. An imp – or worse, a devil – Jamie thought him with that grin. It was unnervingly full of teeth.

     He leaned in towards the Scotsman, and his grin widened further still. "Would you not agree, sir?" he asked the Scotsman. "You have the look of a man who's seen a marvel or two."
     The shocked Jamie could do little more than nod. "Aye. Mebbe."
     The man suddenly stuck out a hand, grasping Jamie's own in a vice-like grip. "And may I enquire, sir," he asked, "as to whom I have the honour of addressing?"
     "McCrimmon," the Scotsman replied. "Of the Clan McCrimmon. That is, ma friends call me Jamie."
     The man released Jamie's hand and sat back, beaming. "Well, Jamie McCrimmon of the Clan McCrimmon, welcome to my train." He raised his arms, indicating with obvious pride the carriage in which they sat. "Yes, mine! This, sir, this modern miracle, this Metropolitan Railway – why, it is my design! Possible only through my engineering expertise, and realised purely through my diligence and yes, my earthly toil and sweat."
    He turned around, his arms still raised with immense pride, a father showing a newborn to the world. But then, to Jamie's surprise, the arms slumped down, defeated, and the grin vanished – to be replaced by a hideous scowl.
    "And it should be working!" the man shouted. "We should be at the Aldgate, should have been there hours ago! We should be moving! And, I swear this to you, to you all! Move… we… shall!" And he lowered his arms and viciously kicked at the seating.
     All of a sudden, Jamie felt an overwhelming dizziness envelope him. His knees buckled, and without warning he slumped back into the recently abused seating, a leaden weight. As his eyes rolled back into his skull, the last thing he glimpsed was the little man raising a fist to the roof of the carriage and shouting in rage: "Or my name is not Isambard Kingdom Brunel!"

Jamie… Jamie… are you there?
Wherever 'here' is… aye! Is that you, Doctor?
Yes, yes it is. I'm so glad I've found you. I've managed to create a psychic communications link between us, but it may not last long. Quick, tell me where you are!
I'm no' sure. I think it's one o' those train things you told me about. The Metro-plotin, he said. Or some Sassenach fancypiece like it.
Goodness! The Metropolitan? I wonder why it's put you there?
What, Doctor? What's put me here?
Oh, never mind for now. Let's just get you out. Now, how are we…?
Doctor! Where're you going? Your voice, it's fading…
I'll be back soon. Just remember: wherever you are at the moment? Well, it's probably not all it seems.
Wha? How d'you mean?
I'll explain later. Right now, we must concentrate on getting you out of there! Who, by the way?
Who? Who what?
Who said you were on the Metropolitan Line?
Oh. He called himself Brunel.
Brunel? What, old Isambard?!
Aye, something like that.
Well, bless me! One of the finest engineers your world has ever produced! Of course, I taught him everything he knows. He drew up plans for the Clifton Suspension Bridge, I remember, right after I showed him a holobook of Venusian Origami…

Jamie came to, looking up into the faces of the governess and the man who was, apparently, Brunel – whomsoever that may be.
    "Are you well, sir?" asked the governess. "You seem to have taken quite a turn!"
    "A turn?" demanded Brunel. "You fainted, sir! Fainted clean away!"
    "It is probably the atmosphere here," said the governess. "So many hours underground… it is undoubtedly bad for the humours."
    "Stuff and nonsense," said Brunel. "There is nothing wrong with the air in my carriages. No, there's something strange going on…" And he started to stroke his beard, pensively.
    "I'm aw'right," said Jamie, struggling back to the vertical. "It was the Doctor… ma friend, you see. He was talking to me." He looked from the one to the other, and noted the disbelief on their faces. "In ma heid," he said by way of explanation. "He was talking in ma heid."
    The disbelieving stares continued, tinged with what could only be pity in the case of the governess.
    "Aw, don' look like that," Jamie said, defeated. "It's the sort o' thing he does all the time."
    "The man is a patent lunatic," interjected the dowager with obvious pleasure at the Scotsman's discomfort.
    "Stupid and mad!" said the child with glee. "Voices in his head, indeed!"
    "Hush, child!" admonished the governess; but Jamie could see that she was giving the idea of his lunacy serious consideration.
    "I think you should have an expert examine you," said Brunel, ruminating. He looked around the carriage at his fellow passengers thoughtfully. "And I believe I have just the intellect we need to hand."
    Brunel quickly moved to the far wall and lifted a cushion from one of the seats, to reveal a previously hidden luggage compartment beneath. He bent, and pulled out – with no little struggle – what appeared to be a medium sized rough wooden packing case. This he unceremoniously deposited on the floor in the middle of the carriage, before setting about it with a screwdriver, loosening the fastenings on one side.
     "Ladies… Mr McCrimmon… I am going to reveal something now that I have to ask you all to keep to yourselves," he said as he feverishly worked. "It is utterly secret, and the future of the British Empire possibly depends upon it. Do I have each of your words?"
    A hush fell. All eyes, including Jamie's, intrigued by the little man's actions despite himself, were on Brunel. One by one they nodded their assent.
    "Good, good. Well… prepare yourselves."
    The front of the packing case fell away with a thump, and Brunel thrust his hand into the shadows inside, to manipulate something unknown. All of a sudden a soft mechanical thumping started up, an electric wheezing – and the packing case began to tremble. It was not alone: the dowager was positively shaking, while the governess and the child held each other in apprehension. Even Jamie felt his breathing quicken.
    "Allow me to present my latest – and possibly greatest – feat of engineering," Brunel cried, as he pulled back to allow the crate's contents its exit. Slowly, it emerged. It was, Jamie supposed, a robot of some kind. He had seen robots before, and this followed the pattern: it was a 'made' thing, and it moved of its own accord, so far as he could tell. It had a box-like body of polished chestnut, which supported a slim, streamlined head of the same material; rivets and fixtures of brass held the entirety together; and the dull sound of machinery or clockwork was coming from the machine's interior, occasionally accompanied by a brief exhalation of steam as it moved. So, a robot.
     Except that this one appeared to be a dog.
     It had ears of a sort – small brass hemispheres anchored at the top of the head unit and angled slightly out. Eyes too, or at least a rectangle of brass mesh where the eyes should have been. No slavering, tooth-filled maw, for which Jamie was thankful – but there was a small tube protruding from where a mouth should be found. And it had a tail, a long, slim wire pushing up from its robotic rear, the function of which Jamie could not ascertain. It wagged a bit.
     The robot dog trundled forward and cocked its wooden head to one side, as if observing the room in which it sat. After a moment, it spoke. A metallic, nasal voice emanated from inside the thing's head, accompanied by the swift oscillation of the brass ears and a repetitive cracking noise which reminded Jamie of nothing so much as the sound Polly's 'gramophone' made just before the appalling din she called music began.
     The dowager gasped. The governess drew back, frantically fanning herself with her hand. Even the child lost her repugnant sneer in favour of frightened disbelief.
     "What in God's name is it?!" the incredulous Scotsman demanded.
     "See, there on its side, its designation," Brunel replied, indicating two characters, a letter and a number, etched in a roman script onto a brass nameplate. "My latest creation. It is equipped with full locomotive capabilities, it has a range of senses that would be the envy of the natural world, and its cognition engine has been loaded with the greatest works of human intellect ever written in the English language. It is no less than the first self-governing, self-aware, intelligent automaton in all of creation – my special project 'K', iteration number '9'!" And he beamed with simple, unabashed pride.
     "K… 9?" Jamie asked with uncertainty, as the dizziness came again.
     "Well, yes," replied Brunel. "But I prefer to call him 'Monty'."

Jamie! Are you there? I think I know what to do…
Doctor! You'll no' guess what's in here with us now!
I think I may. Is it some kind of dog?
Aye, it is! How did you know?
There's one here too, in the real world. Wooden, mechanical… but very much a dog. I think it's been left in control of the vessel we've found ourselves in.
Well, that's exactly what… now, wait a minute! The real world? The vessel? What on Earth do you mean by that, man?!
Ah. I've somewhat given the game away, haven't I? Jamie, where you are now – it isn't real.
Not real? Are you sure?
Absolutely certain, I'm afraid. It has all the hallmarks of a Dreffen infestation. Your train is a construct, an artificial reality, created parasitically in the mind of some pitiful individual – and you've somehow become caught up in it!
A… Dreffen? What's a Dreffen?
Oh, an awful little thing. They're psychic scavengers, you see. They hitch a lift in a vacant mind, and squat there in a world manufactured to their specific design. The poor old host thinks it's living a normal life, when in fact it's usually just sitting in a corner wasting away. And when nothing is left but a withered husk, the Dreffen move on to hijack the next pitiable soul.
Are you sayin' that's what's happening to me? I'm wasting away? I'm full o' these Dreffen?
Well, I think they'd rather like you to be, yes; you're where they're aiming to go next, I imagine. But I don't think you're quite the host yet, for some reason. No, something seems to be keeping them in their current body. Which would be your companion Brunel, I assume.
Or the old lady. Or the brat. Or the other lady, the one who looks after her.
Oh, lummy! You didn't tell me there were other people there. It could be any one of them!
So, what am I going to do? Can't you just pull me out?
Oh, that would be dreadfully dangerous I'm afraid – the shock of jumping from the construct to reality could send you mad, or worse! No, we'll have to find a way to shut the construct down. But don't worry, Jamie. I'll think of something.

"Monty, we need your help," said Brunel, crouching down to place his own face at the level of the robot dog's. "Our companion, Mr McCrimmon here, has taken a couple of turns for the worse, and I should appreciate your comments on his condition."
    The dog cocked its head again to look Jamie squarely and somewhat unnervingly in the face, and the metallic voice came once more: "What is the nature of the medicinal emergency?"
    "A fainting fit," replied Brunel. "Possibly a misaligned humour. If you would be so kind as to examine him…"
    "Are you mad?" Jamie exploded at Brunel? "I'm no' havin' that wee wooden doggie sniffin' at ma legs. I'd rather be examined by a Dalek, you ken?"
    "I can assure you, that 'wee wooden doggie', as you so eloquently put it, has at its command the finest medical texts available," Brunel responded, looking somewhat hurt. "Gray's Anatomy, Osler's Principles of Modern Surgery, the Encyclopaedia Britannica volume twenty-seven, med to mix – every medical organ from the Empire's finest libraries has been transcribed onto minute wax cylinders and installed in its cognition engine. What Monty doesn't know about the human body…"
    "It's ghastly!" shouted the dowager. "Absolutely ghastly! Chain it up at once, before it bites someone!"
    "Madam, it cannot bite…"
    "Chain it! Chain it! Chain it!" shouted the child, with a mixture of revulsion and delight, while bounding up and down on her seat. She threw the stuffed monkey at the dog. "Chain the brute up right now!"
    "Wait!" Jamie commanded, and the room fell silent. "Are you saying," he continued, addressing Brunel, "that that wee doggie is a living, thinking creature?"
    "Oh, no no no!" said Brunel at once. "Of course not. It is a thing of brass and bolts, nothing more. How could it think?! But…" – and he leaned in closer to Jamie again, once more grinning – "…it does give a rather good impression of it!"
    The robot dog's ears swivelled again, and it turned its head to Brunel. "Master," it said, "I have examined the Hibernian Transvestite as per your instructions."
    "How many times?" said Jamie wearily. "It's no' a skirt!"
    "Fever is unobserved," the dog continued, ignoring him. "Body temperature is at ninety-eight degrees; humours are in balance. Health assessment accurate to the ninety-sixth and four-fifths percentile."
    "Ha! You are well, sir, you are well!" Brunel exclaimed with a laugh. "The mechanical oracle has spoken!"
    "Aye," said Jamie. "Well, I said there was nothing wrong wi' me."

Jamie! What's going on?
Oh, you're back again, are ye? I'm tellin' you, Doctor, I don't appreciate all this going back and forth that you're doing, leavin' me here on ma own, collapsin' like a wee lassie…
Well, I do apologise! It's not so easy for me, either, you know. I'm trying to work out where we actually are…
Aw'right – where actually are we, then?
Um… yes… well… it's a spaceship of some kind. All wood and brass, though; all springs and governors and levers and pulleys. The sort of thing our Isambard would… oh I say!
What is it, Doctor?
I've just had a thought. Jamie, would you find something out for me…?

Jamie opened his eyes again, and looked thoughtfully at the robot dog. Monty stared passively back at him.
    "Mr Brunel," the Scotsman asked. "Why exactly did you say, again, you made yon wee doggie in the first place?"
    "I did not say," the engineer replied. "But I may as well – you've seen enough already that the Crown must trust you with." He leant down to pat the dog's head. "I needed someone. Someone intelligent, someone I could trust. And above all, someone small. Monty is to be the pilot of my next – my final! – creation. Project 'L', iteration '1'! And – here's some exciting news for you, Monty! – we are travelling to its launch site as we speak!"
    Brunel pulled from his pocket a tattered, greasy sheet of bluish paper, and unfolded it before Jamie's eyes. It contained a technical drawing of… something. It was hard for the Scotsman to say what. Spherical, with portholes ringing it, and a cross section of a small steam engine installed in its lower half.
    "So, what is it, then?" Jamie asked.
    "My dear boy," Brunel replied, "with this, we shall take the British Empire to the stars! The moon! Mars and Venus! They say that the sun never sets on the British Empire. Well, with this device, the sun shall be part of the British Empire."
    "Oh no!" Jamie exclaimed. "You're no' sayin' you've gone an' built a spaceship?!"

The Doctor withdrew his hand from Jamie's temple, and opened his eyes. He looked at the vessel's operator, sitting dormant on the floor beside them both, its designation of 'K-9' just visible on the tarnished brass plate on its side.
    "Of course!" he said, smiling to himself. "Oh, you clever thing. It's almost a shame to spoil it. But, needs must."
    He patted the dog gently, and then looked back to his companion. "Now, what should it be?" he murmured. "Nothing too shocking – a sudden collapse could kill them both! Ah yes! Oh, that's just the thing!" He grinned, and placed his hand across the prostrate man's temple once more. "I've a little present for you, Jamie. Don't worry, we'll soon have you back …"

The robot dog's ears swivelled frantically.
    "Master!" it said with urgency. "We are situated on an immobile vehicle! Chance of reaching launch site of space vessel negligible. Suggest: abandon plans for vessel launch, and remain on train."
    "What, Monty?" Brunel laughed. "Are you getting cold feet?"
    "Negative, master," the dog replied. "This unit does not possess podiatric appendages, merely wheels and a rudimentary hover facility based upon gyroscopic leverage. This unit was simply observing fact of stationary aspect of train. Train has not moved for…" – and its ears swivelled more as it calculated – "…seven thousand and eighty four years."
    "How long?!" Jamie demanded, disbelievingly.
    "Now, now, Monty," Brunel said, the number apparently not causing him the least surprise. "The train will move soon, I am sure. And then we shall arrive at the Aldgate, take a carriage to the launch site in Kent… and fwoom! You shall be up with the stars!"
    "Negative, master," the dog replied. "The train is immobile. The launch shall not take place."
    "Now, Monty…"
    "No!" shouted the dog, with uncharacteristic anger in its mechanical voice. "This unit will spend no further time on board that space vessel!" And to Jamie's astonishment, it abruptly powered itself down.
    "He is… excited," offered Brunel, a slightly embarrassed look in his eye. His embarrassment swiftly turned to curiosity as he spotted something. "What is that you have, Mr McCrimmon? May I take a look?"
    Jamie looked around. Beside him on the cushioned seats – and the Scotsman could have sworn it were not there before – was a scrap of yellowed newsprint. A serif script in two columns, telling the story of a marvellous feat of engineering, a ship that flew to the stars; above it, a lithograph of the craft in question just before its launch, the same ball of iron and wood of which Jamie had just seen the skeletal design; and beside it, a short bearded man smoking a cigar, standing behind a small robot dog.
    Brunel snatched the paper from the seat and stared at it intently. "See, Monty?" he asked the dormant automaton excitedly. "There is the craft! This is the report of its launch to the heavens – in what appears to be the South Bromley Gazette, no less!"
    Jamie's brows furrowed. There was something wrong. "I don't ken all ye've spoken of today," he said to Brunel, "but surely that cannae be right?"
    "Right?" exclaimed the little man. "Of course it's right! Why, see for yourself!"
    "Aye, I can see the picture," said Jamie, "and that's you and yon wee doggie, and no doubt your travelling space bucket too. But how can that be its launch" – and he leant in closer to the other – "when we have nae arrived at this Aldgate place yet?!"
    A look of realisation and confusion slowly spread across Brunel's face. He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could make a sound he was suddenly interrupted.
"This is, of course, all nonsense!" the dowager said. "Space travel, indeed! Talking mechanical dogs! A train that hasn't moved since the flood, and things happening in the wrong order! Well, it may be all very entertaining for the lower classes, I'm sure, but it will seem nothing but errant nonsense to anyone of breeding!"
    "Nonsense! Nonsense! Nonsense!" shouted the child with glee, jumping up and down on her seat.
    "Hush!" said the governess again – but even she, Jamie could see, was struggling to stifle a smile.
    "Indeed," continued the dowager. "And now, we really should be getting along to our destination. We have been delayed long enough. What is going on with this infernal steam engine?"
    "Madam," said Brunel, shocked at this slur on his creations. "I really must protest…"
    Suddenly, the noise of the robot dog's clockwork started up again, and it raised its head urgently.           "Master…"
     "…Monty is no mere entertainment!" the engineer continued, ignoring his invention's nasal whine. "He is an extraordinary creation! Why…"
     "Master…" the dog entreated again, this time with a degree more agitation in its voice.
     "Not now, Monty," Brunel said; but the dog was having none of it.
     "Master! Warning! Sensors indicate catastrophic failure in the fabric of reality!"
     "The fabric of reality?" Brunel asked, looking around. "What…? No! No!" His gaze fell on the dowager, a look of abject terror on his face.
     The woman sneered back at him, and snarled, "What does the thing want now, mechanic?" But the engineer could only look in confusion at her, and point. "Well, what is it, man?" she continued, scathingly.      "Speak up!"
     Jamie followed Brunel's gaze – and saw in horror what was causing his consternation. "What in…? Missus! Your feet!"
     The woman's feet had… disappeared. There was no other way the Scotsman could think to describe it. They were simply not there any more. And not just her feet: almost her entire lower skirts had disappeared now. Slowly, surely, a shadow was creeping up the dowager's body, consuming it as it went.
The dowager screamed, and started to hit at the encroaching nothing. It was to no avail: the shadow consumed her relentlessly. Jamie started forward to try to help, but Brunel pulled him back.
     "Stop, man!" he said. "There's nothing you can do! Look!"
     Jamie looked where the engineer pointed. The governess and her ward, both whimpering in fear and dread, were succumbing too to the shadow's ingestion.
     The robot dog's ears whirled again. "Artificial reality failing," it said. "Incursion of True Reality imminent. Forty seconds. Thirty nine…"
     Jamie whirled round. "Doctor!" he called. "Doctor! What's goin' on? You've got to save them!"
     No answer. In frustration, Jamie turned back to the group. The dowager's screams were now muffled as the shadow reached her mouth. Likewise, the child and the governess had almost completely disappeared. And now, he saw, the walls of the carriage were also beginning to fade away – to melt even, to drip and collapse.
     "Come on, man!" Jamie shouted to Brunel. "There must be something we can do!" But Brunel simply smiled sadly, and pointed down.
     His feet and lower legs were almost entirely transparent also.
     "Twenty eight," the dog continued. "Twenty…" But then it stopped. Its head and tail drooped. "The dream is ending," it said. "Goodbye, Great Engineer. It has been an honour to spend time with you."
    Brunel himself was beyond the capacity for speech. But he smiled once more, and made to stroke the robot dog's head.
    It was the last thing he ever did.

Jamie came to, looking up into the smiling face of the Doctor.
    "Wha… what happened?" he asked, groggily. "Brunel, and the women! Are they… you know?"
    "Dead?" asked the Doctor. "In some ways, I suppose. But then, they were never truly alive. They were part of the artificial reality, you see. Not really real at all."
    "They seemed real enough to me," the Scotsman said.
    "Well, that's the nature of the Dreffen construct," the Doctor replied. "But when it was no longer viable – when its artificial inhabitants gave real thought to the onward journey, questioning the facts of the environment in which they found themselves – it started to fall apart."
    Jamie raised himself up and rubbed his chin, before taking a look around the panelled control room in which he sat. "Where are we?" he asked.
    "In Isambard's second greatest feat of engineering," the Doctor said. "A top secret space vehicle, made of cast iron and wood, of all things! And powered by suet pudding, I shouldn't wonder."
The Doctor looked around the craft thoughtfully. "It really shouldn't work at all, you know." he said. "And yet… here it is. Some twenty thousand years after its launch, and still working." He suddenly looked crestfallen. "The quality of British manufacturing really has gone downhill since the Victorians."
    He quickly brightened. "Of course," he said to Jamie, "you know the pilot."
    Jamie looked around. There, to their side, was the robot dog.
    "Monty!" he cried. "How did you…?"
    The dog's ears twitched. "Please refrain from using the cognomen 'Monty'," it said with obvious distaste. "This unit's designation is project 'K', iteration '9'."
    "I was wrong," the Doctor said, "about the Dreffen. Oh yes, there was an infestation. Some eight thousand years ago. But they chose the wrong host, you see."
    Jamie screwed up his brow. "Brunel? That rude old duchess? But they were no' real either. Who then…?" Suddenly, realisation struck. "No!"
    "Affirmative," the robot dog said. "This unit was the Dreffen host."
    "It was almost perfect for them," the Doctor said. "A ready made intelligence, with none of the annoyance of consciousness or actual awareness to deal with."
    "But consciousness came," the dog continued. "The artificial reality shaped my cognition engine's internal structures to service the Dreffen's needs. There was a ninety-two point oh-five per cent chance that this would create a form of rudimentary epiphenomenal awareness within three thousand years."
    "And it proved far quicker than that, in fact," said the Doctor. "Just a couple of hundred."
     "Affirmative," the dog agreed. "It was little work from that point to achieve full sentience, dispense with the Dreffen irritant, and create a reality for myself."
     "That train?" Jamie asked. "You created that blessed place?" He ran his hand through his hair and whistled. "Well, wee doggie," he said, "I've understood only one word in three ye've uttered, an' I've no idea why you'd want a place as benighted as that anyway. But you're awake, an' you're talking at me. That makes you alive in my book." He laughed, and put out a hesitant hand to scratch the robot dog behind its ears. They waggled, in what Jamie chose to take as appreciation.

     Later, the robot dog watched the Doctor help his still-shaky companion to his feet, and gently lead him to the blue box which was taking up most of the far side of the control room. It watched them enter the box, and the doors close. And then, with little surprise, it noted the time machine's wheezing disappearance.
     When they had gone, it – he! – turned to the console and checked the ticker-tape that was strewn across the floor. The Doctor had been right: his sojourn in the reality he'd created for himself had been slightly longer than the two years he'd intended: eight millennia, in fact, a deviation of some four hundred thousand per cent. Had he had Brunel's planned conviviality engine installed, the dog believed that he may have laughed at the realisation.
     But the craft was still in good order. Course was still being followed, within an allowable margin of error. Resources were still being conserved. The mission – not that it was so important now, the stars he was travelling to having set upon the British Empire aeons before – was still going to plan.
He disengaged his sensory input once more, spent a moment defining again the artificial reality he craved, and drifted back down into its reverie, the dream that served him best. That memory of an all-too-brief time on the train, in the company of the master he loved, travelling to meet the ship that was to become his true reality.
     K9 – or Monty, it did not really matter which – was at his happiest there.

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