This is my entry for the "Classics" one-shot challenge on the LJ community who-contest, set post-War Games. See note at the end for a few tiny specifics.
When she starts awake at the middle of the night, Zoe knows there is something off.
For her, this is not highly unusual. She sits up in bed, rigid and taut, and attempts to ease the feeling of wrongness—to coolly convince herself that no, there has been no terrible mistake in anyone's calculations, that there shall be no tiny glitch in the system, no catastrophe, no impending doom. To rationalize the wild coiling in her insides, like metallic cords pulling at her gut, squeezing, squeezing—process and eliminate the fear, clean away the disturbances and leave only simple, obvious fact. Come on, she thinks. You know better than this. Just calm down, just calculate—if you go through each and every function of the ship, one by one, and check everything in your head, then maybe you can go back to sleep. Eventually.
Tonight it doesn't come as easily, like an automated pattern snapping into place, a long-rehashed tune. Zoe thinks and thinks, yet she can't settle and focus on one specific cause to blame for the anxiety. It takes an awful few seconds until she manages to call to mind the basic functions of the wheel, even—like there is a blank, a void in her mind, and she must summon the knowledge from some great distance. At the notion, the panic rises dark and smothering, yet slower than she is accustomed to. Is this it? she thinks. Is her head failing her, too big a brain for such a frail little machine? Is she finally losing touch, drowning in the great sea of data that's the only thing that feels right and real, that feels anything like home?
Her heart hammers, nightgown clinging to her back with sweat. Mindlessly, she reaches for the heavy tome of advanced quantum physics on her bedside table. The weight of it feels familiar across her lap—embarrassingly cumbersome when all serious scientists use feather-light data pads that can hold an infinity of volumes hanging between two fingers, but for all of her clear-cut and icy-cold rationality, Zoe must have her little fetishes and the great ancient thing feels good to her. She opens the book, yet her eyes do not instantly home in on the exact line where she last stopped. The text is familiar, but feels faraway somehow.
This is all growing alarming. She does her best to concentrate, yet her brain feels sluggish, like it has lost all of its bearings, its instantaneous reflexes. Even when moving back to some old project after a while of working on more advanced features, she usually snaps back to it way faster than this. She is a neat little robot, Zoe is, yet here she scrambles in the dark and it feels wrong. Like she shouldn't be this way. Like she is being sent back to something she'd left behind, something stifling small, when the very notion is laughable—what could she ever have but knowledge, and what could there be that's wider and more fulfilling?
The book is no longer a friend, and it takes ages to get back to sleep.
The next day, Zoe logs in to the wheel's archive. She skims through pages upon pages, dozens of fields she's read up on. She has forgotten nothing, she reminds herself constantly—her mind is still every bit as sharp, as quick—she simply feels disconnected. She solves a few equations on the sideline of her head as she attempts to settle on a good, challenging read. She scrolls faster, swallowing as she browses the titles blindly. Another part of her wants to push back the screen and talk to someone, and that is quite new—that is frightening.
She should opt for something solid, deep and enlightening, something that will be a productive use of her time and abilities. She always does that—she has no time for trivialities—gone are the Karkus days, the comics and adventure novels that used to keep her hooked for hours, in-between advanced physics, algebra and programming. She is no more child, and if all she has is her brain to get anywhere in life—if she is a prodigy more than a person, inadequate for anything social or indeed human—then there is no use daydreaming about mad quests.
She tells herself that, quite firmly, and still switches to the library labelled "Fiction".
One hour passes and finds her sitting there, somewhat breathless as she clicks a file shut. Silliness, she decides, again. Highly surreal silliness, that indeed drew a fair few giggles out of her, yet that hardly changes the fact. She dimly wonders what kind of hallucinogetic substance the author must have consumed before producing any such work; a potent one, surely, not that she would know about those things. Still. How silly, and how sweet; how dazzling and how dark, and how wonderful.
Her work seems a little small after this, her life a little dull. She may think, invent, progress and analyse the complexities of space for years on end, and yet she will never have seen anything.
She can read, she supposes—in her free time—to make up for this. What else is there for her? Once upon a time, she used to delve into the classics. Deeper, greater men and women would hold her transfixed—she has long neglected their words in favour of figures and calculations, yet she remembers them well, as all things she has ever learned or experienced.
Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught…
Not taught, perhaps, but discovered for sure. She can discover anything if she sets her mind to it, if she just dismisses the daze… If she stops feeling so small and scared, carried away by irrational mind tricks. She is Zoe Heriot, young astrophysicist extraordinaire, and she can do anything she wants.
Not that she cannot spare one hour here and there for a book, she supposes. No need to feel too guilty about this. It could relax her brain, and widen her perspectives, perhaps. It could even help her grow a little.
A half-smile twists her lips as she pushes herself away from the desk, still coiled tight from nerves, yearning for restless activity. There is much to do. So much, and no time to waste.
Yet she will not forget Wonderland.
My knowledge of Zoe is all from the show's material, though I've also poked at her entry on the TARDIS Wiki for extra insight, and my view seemed to fit the spirit of some BF audios featuring her somewhat. The quote in italics is from Oscar Wilde, whose full works Zoe did read, still according to BF and the Wiki. Karkus reference from The Mind Robber; the Alice in Wonderland parallel is mine.