bagheera_san: (watchtower)
[personal profile] bagheera_san
Late fic for the Gallifreyathon at [livejournal.com profile] morepolitics.

Title: A New Refutation of Time
Rating: PG
Length: 2883 words
Characters: Brax
Prompt: [livejournal.com profile] atraphoenix's prompt was As Lord Burner, Braxiatel was ordered to burn "an old man and his granddaughter" from history. I'd love any story that elaborates on this. How did he warn the Doctor and Susan? What happened to Braxiatel in the aftermath? Did he come close to carrying out the order or did he know immediately that it wasn't an option?

Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] x_los for beta-ing this (and for having helpful/hilarious ideas, like the bit where Brax is Aunt Flavia's intern) and to [livejournal.com profile] aralias for also beta-ing this and organizing the gallifreyathon and then listening to me whine about it a lot (by proxy...). The cut text is brought to you by Jose Luis Borges, and so is the title.



“And what if I don’t carry out the edict?”

Braxiatel isn’t sure himself what he means by that – what if I’m too slow, what if I can’t do it, what if I won’t – and he feels foolish asking the question, but it’s all he can think of in that moment. What will happen to me if I don’t do it. He only just escaped death, and it’s been an enlightening experience.

Later he’ll say that it was Project Alpha that made him realize how fragile the world was, but that isn’t entirely true. Your own death is always scarier than the deaths of other people.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” President Pandax says. “In a span, two spans at most. And trust me, you won’t like the answer.”

But Braxiatel would like an answer. Having an answer would be preferable to not having one. What if the alternative to carrying out the edict is not death?

Aunt Flavia keeps a filigree sculpture in her office, a piece of art from Minyos. It depicts their concept of time, a labyrinth with a monster at the center. Only the monster is never depicted in Minyan art, instead there’s a mirror where the center should be, a mirror so small that to see yourself whole in it, you’d have to stand very far away. If the labyrinth is time, then the monster at the center is death. You can escape the labyrinth from any point but the center, can work your way out, up, forward, to the point where the walls stop and you can go anywhere you want.

But President Pandax knows that withholding information is a special kind of power.

“You are dismissed, Lord Burner,” he says coldly.

Brax calls in sick, and even as he lies to Aunt Flavia’s secretary, it feels as if he really does have a fever. His eyes burn, and they feel too hot behind their lids when he closes them.

At the Academy, he was brilliant at temporal projection algorithms – the fine art of predicting the future, of mapping all possible outcomes, of drawing the ever-branching tree of time. He was brilliant at most things, really, but back then he felt like the world was too slow for him.

Now it’s too fast. He can feel it rushing along, noisily, brutally, even in the quiet of his own apartment, turning to cinders and dust behind his back. He can’t think, can’t even do the simple mental process of mapping out his possible actions and their implications.

If he kills Theta and the girl –

If. Should he be thinking like this? Shouldn’t his question be how, where, when, in what order?

When he was a boy, he was sometimes unaccountably nervous – impatient, their father used to say – and the only thing that would calm him was his mother playing the piano in her study. She was a famous xeno-anthropologist, so immersed in her science that their parents used to joke about it, used to say both human on your mother’s side.

The piano was, strictly speaking, an artifact illegally taken from its native timezone, a keepsake from an expedition that should have been returned to where it belonged and instead remained on Gallifrey, but it was only one of many. Brax inherited it, along with the rest of their parents’ things. But he doesn’t know how to play, never wanted to learn after that frustrating first lesson when Theta sat down and started to play at once, a natural talent, effortless, careless, easy, treating everything like a hobby.

Brax wonders if ‘burn edict’ is to be understood literally. Is he meant to burn things? The bodies, perhaps, or the house? The last time Brax saw an open fire was during his initiation to the Academy, torches lighting the way, but he remembers seeing it as clear as crystal, the flickering, the heat, the scent –

He goes to take a shower, but the fever doesn’t break. In the mirror, his pupils are wide and his irises pale, and suddenly, his lips move, even though Brax isn’t speaking. He recoils, scrubs his face, returns to the study where his abandoned, unwritten calculations lie on the desk. His hand shakes as he takes up the pen, and now he can feel it – the shrinking focus of his mind, turning into a spyglass that bundles sunlight. His memory, slowly being converted to a single purpose.

“What you need is time,” he says, and startles himself with his own voice. Where did that thought come from?

If. It’s starting to become difficult to grasp the concept. There is no if, only will. No might, only must. The future is an equation without variables.

He’s written a single word without noticing. Think.

“How very unhelpful,” he mutters to himself.

The alternative is starting to feel like a lifeline. It becomes very difficult not to reach for it, not to get up and begin. He’d do it quickly, no fuss, no talking. That was how the last Lord Burner got killed, he announced himself, asked where Flavia was, gave Brax time to toss an exploding impulse laser at his head. Perhaps Brax should never speak to Theta at all. He could just let the whole house go up in flames. He knows exactly where to get the necessary ingredients, how to build a bomb with just the right kind of power to blow up a single house, no more.

Precision. It’s amazing how much clearer his head gets as soon as he starts to think about carrying out the edict. It’s as if his brain has been rewired, and everything else has become a burden, a slog, like piano lessons when you don’t have that certain something that lets Theta just play.

Think, the ink on the paper still says, and there’s a whisper just at his back, but these are irritating distractions.

If he kills Theta and the girl, he will live. He will remain Lord Burner, a title that carries singular power and promise. It’s an incredible promotion, from intern to the president’s right hand man. A bit of a dead end job, but so is every job, in the end. The future is written, the labyrinth is mapped out, there’s no if, only will.

He gets up, feeling as light and quick as a flame.

*

“Congratulations,” President Pandax says. “I didn’t think you’d manage it, actually, but I can see now that I underestimated you, Lord Braxiatel.”

He’s never been Lord Braxiatel before. Through the numbness, Brax feels vaguely pleased. It wakes him up, makes him realize that the fever has gone, leaving behind only a hollow, raw feeling in his throat.

“I’m curious,” Pandax asks. “Did you fully understand your situation before you decided to carry out the edict? Do you understand now?”

He didn’t, he still doesn’t. But the worst thing only occurs to Brax now, as his mind is lurching back into motion like a machine that was shaken apart and put back together.

“Ah,” Pandax smiles. “I can see you do now. The Lord Burner has special matrix privileges – namely, your mind is linked to the part of the matrix where burn edicts are recorded. You will not need to be present in person to know when a new burn edict has been issued. It will simply appear as a fact in your own mind. And to answer your question about what would happen if you refused to carry it out: you cannot. A delayed edict will begin to overwrite your biodata until it is written in every cell of your body, every thought in your head. Death would be preferable, but I’m told that once it reaches that stage, you no longer have the autonomy necessary to choose death.”

“And now?” Brax asks.

The President shrugs. “I have no further need of you at the moment. You may go.”

*

He didn’t make a decision. The decision was made for him. It would be easier, somehow, to think I murdered my little brother if he had made a choice.


The thought of his mind becoming an endless repetition of the burn edict makes Brax nauseous, and the knowledge that there’s something in his head that can take away his choice makes him furious, but it’s all superseded by the knowledge that he has been no more than a tool in all this. He could live with being a murderer, he thinks, if he had made a reasoned choice to do so, but he can’t live with being the knife, the poison, the gun in someone else’s hand.

Brax has always had a temper, but it’s an unusual sort of temper. Rage feels cold, it turns his mind crystal clear and sharp as icicles. It’s the opposite of what a burn edict feels like. He doesn’t need a piece of paper to write on to think now, it flows easily, like music, revenge put into motion, and at its extreme, his fury turns into detached calm.

It takes him less than a day to figure out that he already has everything he needs to solve this problem: time, and the freedom of thought that comes with knowing that you have nothing to lose. When he looks into a mirror in passing now, the soundless words his lips seem to shape are a promise.

The next burn edict is against Aunt Flavia, and it isn’t hard to guess that when the Lord Burner came to her office, he wasn’t really looking for Brax. This reminder of how unimportant he is to the President rekindles Brax’s anger, but he doesn’t rebel against the edict this time. He’s playing a longer a game now, a game for which he needs all his wits and every second he spends resisting a burn edict will take something away from him. So he chooses to kill Flavia, to sacrifice her to the bigger scheme of things, and it already feels much better. In the wake of her death, the diplomatic corps is restructured, and Brax is promoted from intern to cultural attaché to Minyos. He enjoys his stay on another world, enjoys making speeches and organising soirees where bored alien diplomats mill around the buffet while the finest poets of Minyos raise the world from the strings of a lyre, and sing of brave youths cheating the labyrinth with nothing but a piece of string.

Then another promotion comes along, and Brax returns to Gallifrey, to burn edicts and politics. Now and then, Brax drops a hint near the president, of men and women who are a danger to Gallifrey. Pandax trusts him the way you trust a reliable tool, and so Brax is sent to hunt more dangerous prey. He travels far and wide to find the brightest minds of Gallifrey scattered throughout the cosmos, and tries not to think of how Theta could have been one of them. He tests his skill and wit against theirs, and some of them tell him their secrets before he burns them. He learns how to break into the matrix, how to bend minds without using the coronet, how to sustain a paradox through clever engineering. There’s a hermit on a mountain who shows him a flower before Brax burns him, and asks what he’s seeing, and Brax answers, Everything, I see it all, dying and being forgotten, and the hermit asks with his last breath, as if that’s the only thing that matters, What else do you see?

He digs the flower from the ground with his bare hands once the hermit has died, and takes it home to put it into a stasis box where it could bloom until the end of time.

And then one day he exchanges his Cardinal’s robes for a Chancellor’s robes, and speaks to students at the Academy about what it means to be the lords of time, the preservers of history, and good upstanding citizens of Gallifrey.

By the time he kills President Pandax, he’s become so good at covering his tracks that no one even suspects him and they give him the rod and the sash and the coronet, and for a moment or two, Brax wonders if there is a point in going on, if this isn’t the best of all possible outcomes. Now that he’s president, all his choices will be his own, and perhaps he could even make a small difference in the world. But on the other hand, he knows that once you start to let the end justify the means, you can’t shy away from the end without collapsing your entire card house of choices.

To make up his mind, he visits the gardens of Versailles on the eve of their destruction. It turns out he isn’t the only one there.

“Did you know,” the other Braxiatel says conversationally while the world goes up in flames around them, “that there is going to be a perfect replica of all this in a few centuries? It’s widely regarded as surpassing the original in both beauty and craftsmanship.”

“You,” Brax says, “can’t be real.”

“But I could be,” says the other, touching molten rock that a moment ago was a sculpture and now is shapeless again. “You’re watching a matrix projection – things that might have been or may one day exist, like the destruction of Versailles. Like me.”

But there is no may or might about the man Brax sees before him. He’s a fact, like a burn edict, something that forces itself into being.

“You can see more,” says the Brax who might be a projection, or a figment of his imagination, or an echo of a possible future. “Everything, if you’re curious.”

There is a tale that goes like this that Brax remembers from being a child, or perhaps it was a nursery rhyme, one of the scary, cautionary ones, like Grandfather Paradox, and The Tower of Rassilon. A young man sets out to hunt an oracle, but by the time he finds it, he’s grown grey and old. The oracle offers to tell him his future, but he replies, I’m an old man, I know my future - tell me instead what I could have done differently.

“This sort of thing can turn you mad,” Brax says, because that is how the story ends - the old man listens to all the alternatives he had in life and loses his mind.

The other Brax seems supremely unconcerned. “Personally, I think that madness is a lot like pulling teeth. It’s best to get it over with quickly.”

This is it, the final choice to make: does he want to know all the ways in which he could change history, or doesn’t he? The other Brax smiles like a sphinx. He already knows the answer. He is the answer.

Brax makes his choice, and the fire and smoke bleed from the scene around him, for a moment, the sky is blue, then grey then a bright, receding absence, and then it comes flowing back, pouring into his mind. He sees a thousand worlds where he never lived, where he died in Aunt Flavia’s office, where he never meets the Lord Burner. He sees a world where Theta kills him before he can carry out the edict, a world where he kills Pandax before he’s made the Lord Burner. He sees a world where he’s a tutor at the academy, a world where he’s a renegade wanderer through time and space, a world where Gallifrey is ruled by an Imperiatrix, and he is her servant. In another, he’s her lover, her equal, the only one opposing her. He falls in love with her in the blink of an eye, and already an infinite number of other worlds have fluttered past him. It’s too much for a single mind, too many choices, too many options, an abundance of everything. There’s no way back now, only forward, inward, towards the center of the labyrinth, the shimmer of light in the dark.

The last thing he sees is the garden again, peaceful and bright, stone sculptures untouched by time, flowers in bloom forever and a hundred thousand voices speaking freely, brightly, beautifully all around him.

He sees what could be, the best of all possible worlds.

*

“And what if I don’t carry out the edict?”

“You’ll find out soon enough,” President Pandax says. “In a span, two spans at most. And trust me, you won’t like the answer.”

Brax says nothing. He’s thinking but not thinking, helplessly trying to justify a choice that has been made for him. The president is already growing bored with the whole situation, and turns away to attend other matters.

“You are dismissed, Lord Burner,” he says coldly.

Brax leaves, calls in sick, goes home, tries to wash his new title off his skin. His face in the mirror is dark, more shadow than reflection, but his eyes are bright.

“Stop,” his own voice commands, even though he isn’t moving his lips. “There is a way out of this, if you listen to me.”

Brax wonders if he’s gone mad, but he steps closer to the mirror. It’s not like he has much of a choice - there’s this, and then there’s carrying out the edict.

“Tell me more,” he says.

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