The Doctor and Romana were forcefully escorted into a huge chamber, the walls of which were lined with computer terminals, displaying seemingly endless strings of numbers and complicated equations–they were so difficult to understand, in fact, that it took Romana a few more seconds than usual to solve them. Zeronaughts were sat at each terminal, staring intently at their own personal screens, typing rapidly on their computer keyboards.
‘Welcome to our home, time-travellers,’ began the Zeronaught that stood at the head of the crowd. He looked to be the one in charge. ‘I am Nil the Calculator.’
‘And I'm Zilch,’ said a second Zeronaught brightly. ‘Hello!’
‘Not now,’ hissed Nil. He cleared his throat. ‘Tell me, Doctor, what do you think of our base of operations?’
‘Impressive,’ said the Doctor admiringly. Romana noted that his appreciation seemed genuine, and not like the false niceties that he displayed to most of the evil geniuses that they encountered on their travels.
‘No doubt you've heard the legends of our people,’ said Nil the Calculator, standing face to face with his restrained prisoners. ‘How do we measure up against the stories? Do we exceed your expectations?’
‘Almost,’ the Doctor replied, gazing around casually, ‘but I was expecting some sort of welcome party, and a few nibbles wouldn't have gone amiss. I do love those little cupcakes with sprinkles on.’
Zilch leaned in close to his boss. ‘I told you,’ he whispered.
Nil waved his hand dismissively. ‘You can see, Doctor, how we work to solve the greatest problems in the universe. Assigning everything a numerical value, transforming all of creation into equations, we can reach the answers that philosophers have bickered over for centuries. We laugh at men like Aristotle and Descartes!’
‘So did we,’ said Romana, ‘but then again, they were incredibly witty.’
‘Let me show you, Time Lords, something that will really impress you...’
The Zeronaughts that held the Doctor and Romana firmly by the shoulders forced them to the centre of the chamber, where a mighty machine was brought to their attention. Wires and cables connected the base of the device to every computer bank in the room, and atop the machine was an enormous lever.
‘That's a big one,’ said the Doctor, ‘isn't it, Romana?’
‘Huge,’ the Time Lady agreed. ‘What does it do?’
Nil gave a deep, booming laugh from within his suit. ‘Everything.’
‘Don’t be too specific, will you?’
‘It's true, though. This is the heart of the Zeronaught Accumulation. It can do anything and everything–whatever we want it to. It can achieve the impossible.’
‘Yes, we noticed,’ said the Doctor. ‘Guns in Ancient Rome, and similar effects right across the universe, all echoing out of that original corruption in Time. Do you have any idea what you've done?’
‘Indeed,’ replied Nil, ‘but the question is, Doctor, do you have any idea how we did it?’
The Doctor screwed his face up, as he thought hard. ‘Of course I do. But, umm, while don't you tell me, just to be sure, and I can check if I was right?’
‘We, the Zeronaughts, are the greatest minds in the universe. Expert physicists. Skilled mathematicians. All-round brainboxes. We can work out, for instance, the probability of anything happening. What are the chances of advanced technology being developed in Rome? Only we know. But what, you may ask, is the use of that information? That is why we created the machine you see before you. We feed the numbers into this marvellous invention, and the code is transmitted across all of Time and Space.’
‘You'd need to unravel the base code of the universe or solve the Skasis Paradigm in order to do that!’ cried Romana, horrified.
‘Oh, we figured out those simple sums ages ago,’ said Nil. ‘Didn't we mention? We're very good.’
‘Why?’ asked the Doctor. Romana noted a dark look fall across his face.
‘Because we're really clever–‘
‘No. No. Why do you want to change the universe in this way? What do you get from it, eh? Is it all just a bit of fun to you?’
Nil sighed, the sound echoing out of his suit like a terrible winter's breeze blowing through the chamber. Romana shivered.
‘We know everything,’ Nil said. ‘Nothing is a mystery to us anymore. The Zeronaught Accumulation has achieved its aims. Our pursuit of knowledge has ended. Now we desire a new universe, one infinitely stranger than this one, with new problems to solve! ‘
‘So you don't care what happens to this one?’ asked the Doctor. ‘You don't think about the consequences of your experiments? How selfish! I happen to be rather fond of this particular reality, thank you very much. But if you're as powerful as you say, and you want to bring about an end to this universe, why haven't you done it already? I mean, I'm not complaining or anything...’
‘There is, reluctantly, one thing standing in our way. In our world, nothing is impossible. We could make anything happen. We brought peace to the war-torn world of Zarathstra! We gave single-celled organisms the means to develop faster than light travel! We even got the human known by all as Weird Steve a girlfriend of reasonable attractiveness! But we encountered a problem. In our search for the likelihood of this universe suddenly ending, and a new one taking its place, we found something we never suspected. A reading on our computers that we never dreamed existed.’
‘What was it?’
‘Such a thing was, apparently, genuinely impossible.’
‘Why is it impossible for the universe to cease to exist?’ asked the Doctor.
‘Because of you,’ hissed Nil. ‘You, Doctor, are the saviour of worlds, the bringer of peace, the harbinger of joy and prosperity. Records indicate that you would never, ever allow the universe that you adore–and that adores you in return–to be destroyed.’
A huge grin broke out across the Doctor's face. ‘Well, I'm flattered. It's always nice to get some positive feedback, isn't it?’
Romana began to work everything out in her head. ‘So,’ she deduced aloud, ‘that's why we're here. You needed to get the Doctor here, to your home, in order to kill him. If you remove him from the equation–literally, in this case–then your plan can advance. That's why you kidnapped the Cavalier, to get our attention, to put us on your trail. You lured us here, and we've ended up right in the middle of your trap.’
‘And that is also why we reached out and changed your beloved dog,’ the Zeronaught went on. ‘But you seemed relatively unconcerned by that, so we turned our attention to your old friend instead.’
‘If you wanted me,’ said the Doctor, ‘you should've kidnapped Romana instead. I'd have dropped everything to come and rescue her in a heartbeat.’
Despite everything, Romana felt a smile breaking out. ‘Doctor, I'm touched, really...’
‘I mean, she's got a TARDIS key. Can't have that falling into the wrong hands.’
Romana tried to wrestle free from her captors in order to give the Doctor the great whack on the arm that he deserved. ‘You have to go and ruin it, don't you?’
The Doctor shrugged, oblivious, as the Zeronaughts held his companion back.
‘You are complicated, Doctor, I'll give you that,’ said Nil, who took to pacing around the chamber.
‘Oh, you sound just like my therapist!’ said the Doctor, keeping his steely gaze fixed upon the Zeronaught leader. ‘I told him, time and time again, I said, Sigmund, don't keep overanalysing my dreams. The Time Vortex isn't at all symbolic, I tried to reassure him, but he wouldn't listen. You see, in Freudian analysis, a tunnel like that would represent a–‘
‘Are you capable of being silent for a moment?’ asked an exasperated Nil.
‘I have no idea. I've never really tried.’
‘What I meant was, you are a complicated event in space-time, immune to the effects of our machine. So are your companions and your TARDIS. That's why we couldn't affect you directly, rather annoyingly for us. Is there anything you can't do?’
‘I'm terrible at making desserts,’ he admitted. ‘My meringues, in particular, are frankly a bit rubbish. But I really don't think it's worth killing me over that, do you?’
‘There is another option, Time Lord and Time Lady,’ Nil went on tantalisingly. Romana could feel his cold breath against the back of her neck as he paced around her.
‘We're listening,’ Romana said, shivering.
‘We're listening,’ Romana said, shivering.
‘There is no denying that your minds are great. We observed what you accomplished in primitive Paris, with remarkable Time experiments. Not to mention that business on Earth, in the dwelling known as Cambridge.’ He paused, taking a deep, mechanical breath. ‘Join us. Become a part of the Zeronaught Accumulation. Wear our armour with pride! You will live for ever!’
‘And you get a free pen, too,’ added Zilch, holding up a cheap biro.
‘Consider our offer,’ Nil urged. ‘You do not have to die. You must simply agree not to stand in our way.’
The Doctor laughed. ‘I'll never join you.’
Romana nodded in agreement. She and the Doctor stood firm, together. Until the end.
‘Then I'm afraid, children of Gallifrey, you must die.’ Nil raised his mechanical hand, which began to glow with fiery energy. Romana could feel its warm glow across her face as he moved it towards her, ready to end her life. ‘You will stand and watch, Doctor, helpless to prevent the death of your closest friend. Before your own end, your hearts must break.’ The Zeronaught broke into a terrible laugh.
Romana looked over at the Doctor, for what she supposed would be the very last time. She hoped that he would speak what was in his hearts, though she knew that she couldn't bring herself to say how she truly felt either.
They would die never knowing, she reasoned sadly, if the other felt the same way. But then she allowed herself a smile: no, they both knew.
Romana closed her eyes. She waited for death to come.
Instead, the TARDIS came.
The lamp atop of the police box glowed brighter than ever before, flashing with pure white-hot intensity as the TARDIS faded into existence nearby. The Zeronaughts restraining the Doctor and Romana released the prisoners from their grip in order to shield their eyes.
‘W-what?’ muttered Nil, his concentration broken; the light around his hand dissipated.
‘What?’ Romana said, allowing herself to open her eyes again to gaze upon the wondrous sight.
‘WHAT?’ cried the Doctor, his eyes were wide.
For the first time, even the Zeronaughts at their workstations looked around, amazed at the situation. No one could quite believe it.
‘This is impossible!’ Nil said.
The TARDIS doors creaked open, and a man stepped out, backlit by a magical white light, causing him to become little more than a powerful, intimidating silhouette.
‘Impossible?’ repeated the man. ‘Nah! Like you lot keep going on about, nothing's impossible.’ The man stepped forward, into the chamber.
‘Just improbable,’ finished the man–the Cavalier.
Romana looked over at the Doctor, who seemed so delighted. This time she wasn't at all jealous, because she was just as happy to see their new friend.
K-9 followed behind a few moments later, the TARDIS doors swinging shut as he rolled over the threshold.
‘Cavalier!’ cried the Doctor, grinning. The Zeronaughts held him back, stopping him from running over to his old friend, which he clearly desperately wanted to do. “You're here! Romana, look–it's the Cavalier!”
‘And me, Master,’ added K-9 feebly.
‘What?’ The Doctor only just seemed to notice the dog. ‘Oh. Yes. Hi there, K-9.’
‘You stole the TARDIS!’ wondered Romana aloud, looking over at the Cavalier. ‘Why? Where did you go? Do you have a plan?’
‘Bit of a plan,’ mumbled the Cavalier. ‘But you might not like it.’
‘Why? What have you done?’
In an instant, Romana worked it out and, judging by the worried look on the Doctor's face, he had too.
‘Oh, you haven't done that, have you?’ the Doctor asked.
The Cavalier nodded nervously.
‘It's risky,’ Romana said when the Cavalier looked away, perhaps worried that he had made the wrong decision, ‘but it just might work.’
Nil and the other Zeronaughts looked between them, completely baffled. ‘Will someone please explain to me what you are talking about?’
The Doctor clapped his hands together decisively, taking control of the situation. ‘Okay, listen up, you lot,’ he said to the Zeronaughts. He strode confidently around the room, staring at each and every one of the black-clad knights, and all they could do was wait to see what he would do. His manner, his confidence–it scared them. They couldn't begin to guess what he was planning, but they guessed that it wouldn't be good. They were right.
‘You think you're making progress,’ the Doctor continued, ‘but it's all so derivative, reducing everything to zero, thinking only in numbers. What must that be like? Hell, I think. You see reality merely as strings of numbers, statistics, rather than what it actually is. And the universe is beautiful without you messing with it, you improbable astronauts. But you just can't help but interfere, can you? Take Ancient Rome, for instance. A magnificent civilisation, remembered for centuries for all the right reasons. And then you went and changed everything about it, advancing them, giving them superior technology. Which, of course just meant, that they only created bigger and more powerful guns. Now I reckon, as you see everything as numbers, you've forgotten what guns can do, haven't you? Well, let me jog your memories.’ The Doctor flashed a manic smile. ‘Guns can do this.’
At that moment, everything went to hell. The roof of the Zeronaughts' temple was destroyed in one almighty blast. Romana, the Cavalier, K-9 and the Zeronaughts all looked up, in awe. A dozen jet fighters streaked across the sky, leaving a trail of smoke behind them. The Doctor, however, kept his steely gave firmly fixed on Nil the Calculator. His smile had fallen away and Romana thought that the Time Lord had never looked more serious.
A chunk of rubble tumbled downwards, landing on top of the Zeronaughts' precious device in the centre of the room. Sparks exploded out of it, and it made a whining, straining noise.
‘The universe that you corrupted,’ the Doctor said, demanding Nil's attention as he mourned his device, ‘is fighting back to destroy you. They realised what you did, how you changed them, and they weren't happy about it at all. The Zeronaught Accumulation is a plague upon reality. A virus, a disease! But I've got the cure. Well, of course I have...’
‘I'm the Doctor!’
There was another explosion nearby, and this time one of the walls of the temple was blown inwards. A dozen Roman soldiers strode in through the smoke, let by General Titus. On his shoulder stood a single Kuricam, like a pirate and his parrot.
Titus drew his sword and held it at the Doctor's throat. ‘You are scum,’ sneered the general, ‘and you will be annihilated.’
‘No, no,’ said the Cavalier nervously, ‘Not him. The ones in the mechanical armour–they're the bad guys.’
Titus cleared his throat. ‘Sorry, sir.’ He swung his sword away from the Doctor, and instead aimed it at Nil. ‘You are scum,’ he repeated, ‘and you will be annihilated.’
‘You are under arrest for temporal disturbances,’ said the Kuricam. ‘Justice will be swift.’
‘Do you surrender?’ asked the Doctor. ‘I would if I were you.’
Nil thought about this for a moment. Then, deciding, he cried, ‘Never!’
His hand glowed with blood-red energy, and he swiped at General Titus. The Roman blocked with his sword, and steel clanged against steel. The two of them were locked in battle: Nil was forcing his hand down upon Titus while he held him off with his sword braced against the Zeronaught's forearm.