Kid Curry has chosen to confront the Gods of Ragnarok head-on...


Perhaps it was the remnants of Imran's divination magic still working away inside her, but the avocado troll felt the shift in the Gods' attack, felt it shift toward Kid, felt why, and a hollow chill went through her.

Oh, no, Kid, she thought. Oh, no. Don't sacrifice yourself for us. Don't do this to yourself -- don't open yourself up to attack. As much as we need you now, we will need you even more after this is over -- this is not the final battle, and even if it were, it wouldn't be worth that sort of death.

She felt so helpless. If she were a performer, she could try and draw the Gods' un-energy away from Kid. If she were in the audience, wrapped in Imran's magic cloak, she could try to send fun energy directly at the Gods and distract them. But as Ringmaster, what could she do? She was at the center of it all, and yet, she was set apart. All she could do was see, and understand, but not act.

She felt Kid's thoughts, felt his doubts that the Gods would play by the rules. Her deputy, too, had the very same doubts. And doubt was niggling at the edges of her own mind. But they were Pro-Fun -- living in the moment, for the sake of the moment itself. Playing the game for the sheer joy of it -- win or lose. And Joy, she knew, had a deep power that was almost always underestimated -- a power equal to that of the Gods of Ragnarok, and greater still -- if they trusted it enough to draw on that deep power. If the Gods provoked them into cheating, than the Pro-Fun troupe would be cut off from its power. But one of the fundamental rules of the Omniverse (almost as fundamental as the rule of gravity) is that you cannot win against a cheater by playing fairly.

It was a no-win game, for them, it seemed.

Except.

Except they had Kid Curry .... the Outsider. On their side, for now, but not one of them.

He lived by cheating. Knew it like he knew the rhythm of his own breathing. He was the Trickster: not the silly jester of royal court, accompanied by bright light and bright music, but Loki, the picker of mistletoe, the one who guided the hand of blind Hoder, the one who, by playing the innocent, moving in shadows, could fell a God.

She took a deep breath -- filled herself as much with hope as with air, and, drawing on the divination magic still inside her, tried sending a message to Kid herself.

:::Careful!::: She warned him. :::If you must fight the Gods, do it the way you do best. Sideways. Silently. The shootout in the Main Street at noon isn't really your style. We need you, Curry. Not the sheriff, right now.:::


Something of that effort must have got through. From down by the entrance to the main ring she saw him raise his head sharply, like a dog questing for his master's voice. His response was both eager and hesitant, almost shy.

- Contessa?

And the unconscious, wordless message accompanying the name was most definitely not intended for the avocado troll to hear... Too late, she managed to pull back from the contact. The dark flush of comprehension that had begun to stain his face was mirrored on her own cheeks, painfully obvious beneath the clear green of her complexion.

- Get the hell outta my mind!

Fury and humiliation both, stinging like buckshot. Then, nothing. He'd cut himself off completely.


The suddenness with which he'd broken off contact stung like a slap in the face. Perhaps she'd been wrong to try and communicate that way, but she'd been desperate to try and get the message to him that he was needed, and what other means were there, that wouldn't be detected by the Gods?

Now, she had the worry that he would act even more rashly, spurred on by that fury and humiliation she'd felt. Oh, dear. Had she made it worse? She could only hope that he would realize on his own that confronting the Gods directly was the most dangerous thing he could do, and that, if they survived this battle, and he'd had a chance to regain his composure, he would accept her apology.

Right now, though, she had to focus on other things. Even though she wasn't wearing the Cloak of Audience, she could try to add a little Pro-Fun energy at the poodle act, and see what that could do.


'Rules...' Imran muttered. 'Rules.'

'What about them?'

'The Gods are stuck with the rules of the challenge - one act for another. And they can't retaliate against us after one of their acts - because we haven't responded, haven't played by the rules...'

'Whose rules?' our hostess said.

Imran's mouth quirked. 'The Powers That Be. The ones who're above even the Guardians, who even the Guardians must answer to...'

'Umm, Imran...'

'Yep?'

'Don't the Monitors work by the Powers' rules?'

Imran froze. 'I really, really wish you hadn't mentioned that...'

'And the Monitors got pushed into working for our adversaries - coerced, because the rules could be bent far enough to allow that...' our hostess said quietly.

'How far can they push the rules of the challenge...?' Imran whispered. 'How far can they push it?'

'How good are they?'

'How good can we be?' Imran said. '...Where is Jim? Maybe he hasn't noticed...'

'That's an act that needs to go on,' our hostess observed wryly. 'Not noticing what's happening... Still, we need him - and the semi-trained cats.'

'Hmm...' Imran mused.

He looked out at the ring in disgust. 'Can't stand poodles at the best of times. God-animated robot poodles...'

Our hostess winced. 'I think I can guess.'

Cold. Cold... no, not even mechanical.

Unnatural. Against what should be - against the basic sense of what is, and what should be. Animated by something antithetical to all that is. Scientific, magical, artistic - the robot poodles managed to violate all senses of aesthetic, while still retaining the outward appearance of poodles.


The two Doctors finished their act, seeming oblivious to the drama going on in the shadows that surrounded them. The final note drifted into silence, and the final spotlight dimmed into darkness.

When the lights came on again, ten robot poodles stood in perfect triangle formation, and in response to their God trainer and the crack of Its whip, they moved in sync into different geometric shapes: perfect circles, squares, figure 8's.

The little troll got an idea. Let's see what this cloak can do, she thought to herself. She focused on one poodle: number 5, and imagined a beam of fun was aimed right at its heart... or where its heart would have been if it had one.

Sure enough, the stars on her cloak burned brighter and brighter, until needle-fine rays of light shot out from each one toward the poodle, converging at a single point right at the heart.

When the light hit, the dog jumped, just a little, in surprise. If she hadn't been looking for it, the little troll might not have noticed. But from that point on, number 5 was just a split second out of step with the others.

It's working! the little troll thought to herself, happily. It's less robot-y, more alive! And with that thought, she began to see 5 not as a robot in the shape of a dog, but as a real dog -- a dog who loved to run, and jump, and sneak tastes of ice cream, and roll in stinky things.

As she thought these things, the light from the stars in her cloak grew even brighter, and a glow appeared in the dog's chest, where the star-beams converged.

And then, something remarkable happened. The dog's robot form cracked, like the shell of an egg -- like an egg exploding from the inside out.

And a real dog emerged -- all wiggle from nose to tail. A dog not caring about, or even noticing, the precision formation around her -- a dog bounding about the ring, ears pricked to all the noises, nose twitching at all the smells.

The joy she felt at simply being dog was palpable, and the pro-fun hoedowners on the sidelines clapped and cheered and whistled for her.

And she bounded toward them, nuzzling up against them, accepting ear scratches and licking faces. She even tried to say hello to the cats, and got a scratch on the nose for her trouble. She took even this, though, as part of the game.

The Gods didn't react at all for what seemed like ages (but it was probably only a second). It was as if their vast imagination-deprived minds couldn't even perceive what was going on.

But their rage, when it came, was greater than anything that had come before -- aimed not at the pro-fun hoedowners, and not at Kid Curry, but at their own. Cold, hungry, and totally without forgiveness, all their hatred built to a terrible weight high in the peak of the Big Top, ready to drop like an anvil in a Warner Brothers cartoon.

Our Ringmaster stood in front of the now real poodle protectively.

Then the rage fell, with greater speed and force than gravity would allow. And the God-trainer and the remaining nine robots were gone -- sent into a void that led to no other dimensions.

The little turquoise troll in the bleachers choked back a sob. She had hoped to rescue all the dogs, as she had rescued the one.


He stood in the doorway in the moonlight, sipping from his carton of Um Bongo. He'd left Saville organising the zombies, armadillos and ninjas for a few minutes. He'd spotted Igor in the crowd, trying to flick popcorn down Auntie Krizu's cleavage of evil(TM).

Gordon felt something nibbling at the back of his subconsciousness. The shadow of despair again? No, this was something different. A sense of doom, an oncoming storm? Were the Gods holding back? Did they have something else they could do? Something none of us know about?

Even with eight Doctors here, can we win?

Yokoi had commented on him acting very unlike himself earlier, more like the Doctor. He still wasn't sure exactly what he'd done when he'd held up the sword whilst on the back of the gryphon. He'd felt himself slipping into other facets of himself that had only been revealed in the stories he had told. There had also been the Sailor Marinus incident[1] but he was trying to forget about that...

He looked at the Sword Of Authority in his hand that the avocado troll had given him. It glinted in the moonlight. Sailor Marinus had been an accident, a glitch while tweaking his author avatar. What if the sword was letting him do more than that?

He had an idea. A last resort. Stupidly dangerous, but if worst came to worst it was worth a try. He looked around for a cardboard box. That should do for starters, he could shanghai Yokoi in to the plan, although she'd probably call him for all he was worth. He'd need a volunteer from the audience as well. A short trip, a side step. It was possible he could catch the Gods completely unawares with it. Even with all the acts, the fun, we can use all the help we can get.

He finished his drink, picked up his synthesiser (he was going to play a little tune as an interlude before his and Saville's extravaganza) and pushing all thoughts of Gods, darkness and storms to the back of his mind and walked back in to watch the rest of the show.

[1] As seen in TTR : Of Mice And Mayhem


The Ringmaster needn't have worried about the poodle act.

Not a minute into the act, beams of Pro-Fun light from the bleachers converged on one robot -- and the next thing she knew, she was laughing and fending off the kisses of a real, living standard poodle.

Then the Gods, unforgiving even of their own, erased the trainer and the remaining nine poodles from existence.

Their act hadn't lasted for half as long as it was scheduled to. Was Jim ready? Where was he anyway?

"Jim!" Our Ringmaster called, running back stage. "You're on! And you'd better hurry! After the incident with the Robot poodle that just happened, their tempers are short, at best!"


'What the Gods can do is strike at an act that's supposed to go on - disrupt it...' Imran murmured. 'If it fails...'

'Then they win.' our hostess completed. 'And they're almost certainly going to try it - but they can't strike at our final act... because my deputy and Kid are out there, watching them.'

'It's just the rest of us with the problem...' Imran said, an ironic cast to his voice.

'Oops!'

'Bokman, Gordon, Cameron and Nyctolops, Mags and Kingpin... at this point, we're the ones they'll be concentrating on - after what Kid did in the ring, the Gods aren't going to try the darkness again,' Imran thought out loud.

'Hmm...' our hostess said. She whistled.

One of the other Pro-Fun Trolls came running up.

'Call Jim. It's nearly time for his act.' our hostess told the troll.

Then she turned back to Imran. 'Hmm... Could you whip up something to help out? Something that'd help if they did strike at you?'

Imran thought.

'Perhaps... Hmm, I know. But we'll have to hold on 'till I get on stage for that - and it wouldn't stop the Gods, but it would help us.'

'That's good,' our hostess said. 'As long as we have something we can defend against them with... Here's Jim!'


Backstage, suddenly a beeper went off. Jim dug around frantically in his voluminous pockets and pulled it forth--and his trollish frown deepened.

"Oh, bugger. Those bastards pulled the dirtiest trick possible -- a sneaky, underhanded, an RL incursion!" Sadly, there was little he could do to avoid it at this point -- but perhaps, just perhaps, he could thwart them anyway.

"You'll have to go on for me!" he said, grasping Our Ringmaster by the shoulders.

"But I think --"

"I really, really appreciate you covering for me like this," he said, not letting her finish her protest. "Real Life incursions are the most foul of their tricks, but they're pretty much unavoidable. All you can do is compensate. Hopefully I'll be back in time for the finale...

"Right, here's what you'll need. The cats are as trained as they're going to get, and I've asked Wolsey--yes, THAT Wolsey, he owed me a favor -- to lead them on their interpretive dance routine..." Jim began.

"Interpretive dance?"

"Yes, it's called 'The Fundamental Interconnectedness of All Things', as a nod to Douglas Adams. I can't possibly explain it to you properly at present -- you have to see it to believe it -- but it will look like total chaos at first. The thing is, eventually the pattern emerges, and it's all about going with the flow.

"Then," Jim continued absently scratching a passing inquisitive kitten with a magic wand, "you'll need this wand -- which, if you look closely, is really a technological marvel. This microcircuitry affixes to tactile sensors which monitor brainwaves via the body's electromagnetic signature, and interprets them through a quantum emitter where that little star-shaped crystal is. Kinda neat, huh? Anyway, to activate it, you merely will the desired effect and the quantum pulse does the rest. Within parameters, of course."

"Okay... I think I understand..." the avocado troll thought to herself, "the wand interprets brainwaves, and thus, thoughts, through the fingertips of the person holding it."

"Right now it's set for limited scope -- to keep the cats in the right rhythm, and that's a power drain like you wouldn't believe -- but if need be I'm sure one of the Doctors could rewire it for other things. Makes a great sonic screwdriver, but I prefer the 'braun heavy duty mixer' setting..."

The avocado troll raised an eyebrow at this.

"No, silly, for making milkshakes and the like. I figured Gordon might need that function. By the way, here's some pro-fun Godiva Chocolate Mint Liqueur for the party. Although you might want to double-check that the label's right before you mix it in. I was pretty tired when I filled up that flask..." Jim said, thoughtfully. "Anyway, you'll also need this..."

With that he dragged out what looked like an explosion of neon and pipe organ, fully thirty feet tall. Yes, it was definitely something like a pipe organ, but the pipes had little faces like in cartoons, and the garish neon wound round them. One face had little handlebar moustaches made from crepe paper, which would flutter amusingly when the note was sounded. He then unrolled a large carpet with a stars-and-moons pattern, and a small plug on the side connected to a miniature "mad scientist" generator (with the static ball and crackling electrical wire/bugzapper stuff and everything), which in turn connected to the pipe organ.

"Now, this may look complicated," Jim said, indicating the Rube Goldberg-esque lash-up behind him, "but all you really have to do is make sure the cats do their routine on that carpet. That generates the static electricity -- easily enough to power a Hartnell-era Dalek city -- and powers the pipe organ, which is self-playing.

That's all?!! the avocado troll thought, worriedly. How am I supposed to do that? Then: Relax. The Gods will use your nervousness against you, if you let them.

"So don't worry about a thing, it'll all be fine, here's the duct tape in case anything blows up, and I'm outta here."

"Blows up"?!!!!

Jim dug out his proper hat, returned to his normal form, and engulfed Our Ringmaster in a big hug. "I really appreciate this!"

And with that he smiled and muttered an incantation half under his breath before disappearing in a puff of sandalwood-scented smoke.

:::Gee!::: the avocado troll thought to herself, :::I hope I got all that.:::

Wolsey meowed, as if reading her thoughts, and knowing cats, he probably was, especially as he was a cat who'd lived with the Doctor in a particularly telepathic incarnation.

"Right!" the troll said to him... "You know what the routine is... so it should be all right."

:::At least, I hope so::: she thought.

But she didn't have time to worry about that. They were on.

Now.


I was wishing I could be a performer, she thought to herself, a little sickly, now I am. What's that they say about being careful what you wish for?

She hurried out to the center of the ring, picked up the microphone, cleared her throat, and made her announcement:

"Ladies, Gentlemen, and Gods. Due to circumstances beyond our control Jim Vowles will not be able to perform --"

-- She felt the hateful snickering from the Gods' section of the bleachers, rather than heard it. She could feel, too, their attempt to declare that the Pro-Fun Circus had forfeited the challenge.

But she continued on -- cutting off that declaration before it could be heard by the Powers that Be, listening from the Omniverse beyond.

"Therefore, I will be taking his place. I hereby present to you a feline interpretive dance entitled: 'The Interconnectedness of All Things'."

She pushed what seemed to be an on/off button on the wand, and sure enough, the organ started playing: so low as to be almost inaudible, and with a melody that sounded suspiciously like an aria by Arnold Schoenberg.

Wolsey strolled into the center of the stars-and-moons carpet, sat down and began to wash himself languidly.

She could feel the rage of the Gods building again, could feel their attempt to cry "Forfeit!", but she could do nothing to fend them off -- all of her attention had to be focussed on the cats, and the "unifying will"-power of the wand.

:::Just trust in the Interconnectedness of All Things, she told herself. Trust in the support of those who love you, and in the joy you feel in the small things in life -- in the beauty present in the grace of a cat washing himself.:::

She took a deep breath, and calmed herself. As if in response, the organ's few discordant notes came together in a harmonic chord, and grew louder.

Wolsey stood and stretched, and began to walk around the edge of the carpet, his tail high. Every now and then, his tail would lash from side to side, as though in response to something, but it took a while for the avocado troll to realize that he was moving his tail in response to particular notes: to the left for middle C, and to the right for the E above it.

When he had made his way one and a half times around the carpet, two kittens bounded out, and began to pounce on the end of his tail -- or try to (half the time, they missed, and tumble-rolled head over heels). After the three of them made one circuit around the carpet, the two kittens broke off into the center of the carpet and began to tumble and pounce over each other.

And at that point, poodle five bounded in from ring-side and stood over them, poking them with her big wet nose, and waggling.

(And the avocado troll began to panic... She could feel the Gods' rage building even higher. She could feel, too, Kid Curry's defiant thought: 'No more attacks on the ring!' But his defiance was dwarved by the Gods' power as a spring peeper's call is by a full-throated lion's roar. She could sense her deputy and Nyctolops trying to absorb the negative energy. But their side had only two members in the audience against all the Gods of Ragnarok.)

But in the center of the ring, something remarkable was happening.

The little kittens squealed, but they didn't run away. Instead, they tried to climb the (to them) massive nose of the dog as if it were a tree trunk, and eventually, they succeeded, climbing up to perch on the woolly-haired dome of the poodle's head. Then the dog, stepping in time to the music (which was, by now, playing a Sousa-like march), fell in behind Wolsey, as he went around the ring.

The avocado troll, and the other pro-fun performers waiting in the wings, couldn't help but laugh at the sight, and at the sound, the black power of the Gods began to break up, as it had when they'd cheered for Nyctolops. As the pro-funsters sensed that, they cheered and clapped louder, as much for the renewed hope that they might survive as for the enjoyment of the act before them.

As Wolsey went by, the troll was sure she saw a smug little grin to his whiskers, as if you say: "And you doubted my ability to keep it all under control!"

Each time he completed a circuit of the carpet, one or two more cats would join the "dance" -- some as young as newly weaned kittens, others, elderly cats with frost-bitten ears and hanging bellies, and every age in between. At first, just as Jim had said, it seemed to be complete chaos: each cat doing its own cattish thing: chasing its tail, pouncing on flecks of paper spat out out of the top of the organ's pipes, or simply napping.

But as the numbers of cats swelled, and the carpet filled up, the patterns emerged: intricate circles that wove around, in and out of each other, echoing the movements of atoms themselves, and of planets and stars -- all against the midnight blue and embroidered stars of the carpet.

And then, when the pattern was at its most intricate, and not a single cat was left to enter, the music reached its crescendo: and then, the finale: All the pipes sounded at once, and a rainbow of confetti spewed out into the air of the Big Top, and the cats, young and old, leapt up as one to catch the fluttering color.

The final chord ended suddenly, and the silence that followed was as refreshing as a deep sigh.

Wolsey turned, and with tail high, led the cats (and poodle number 5) out of the ring.

The Pro-funsters stood there, in calm, appreciative silence for a moment. And then exploded into applause and cheers.

The Gods, however, had a wholly different reaction....

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