Practical Mythology by Lyricwritesprose
Summary: Jack Harkness is a conman and a survivor. He doesn't believe in legends. And he shouldn't be running towards the invisible menaceóbut he is.
Categories: Ninth Doctor
Characters: Jack Harkness, Rose Tyler, The Doctor (9th)
Genres: Action/Adventure, Character Study, General
Warnings: Explicit Violence, Swearing
Chapter 1: Trickster
Chapter 2: Stranger
Chapter 3: Warrior
Chapter 4: Hero
Chapter 1: Trickster
Author's Notes: This fic is set right after The Doctor Dances, and it's my exploration of what it would have been like to discover you're traveling with something out of legend. It's not the first and almost certainly not the best fic with this theme. (More Than True, by DameRuth, is awfully good.)
The first couple of chapters are going to be fairly tame, but there is explicit (and, I feel, pretty disturbing) violence in chapter three.
I found the Old English text for Beowulf on the website for Fordham University.
So, there I was, moments away from certain death. I got myself a martini. I mean, what else?
My name isn't Jack Harkness, but I answer to it. I also answer to gorgeous, honey, lover-boy, and "what a great ass." My death was going to reduce the entire universe's level of sexy by at least ten percent. Deep down in my stomach, I could feel more than a touch of dread, but I did my best to ignore it. No point in spending your last moments feeling bad, you know? Better to think about the good times, the drinking and dancing and kissing by moonlight (or starlight, or artificial light; I'm not particular). People I enjoyed who I hadn't stolen from, people who enjoyed me back. Crazy stunts with aircars, laughter, good music–
I was definitely hearing Glenn Miller.
First thought: what? Second thought: computer's malfunctioning. Third thought: but it's not coming from the speakers. I turned around and there was something standing in my ship.
I knew what it was, of course. It was the same weird-looking time capsule that kicked off the whole mess which I wasn't going to think about, not in my last moments–except that they might not have to be last moments, and I was out of the chair and scrambling for the capsule before my brain registered what was truly impossible about it. I rushed through the doors and stopped.
Only thought: what the bigger how what can't be doesn't fit not possible not possible not possible what the hell HOW?!
The capsule was the size of a closet. A small closet. You could have fit about five people inside, but only if they were college students, drunk, and looking for an excuse to grope each other anyway. The inside of the capsule was–just completely impossible, all right? Huge. The size of an apartment at least. Not illusion, not something you could do with clever holoscreens. You could hear the size of it in the way the music sounded and besides, the two people inside it were way over there.
The commander of the capsule–his friend Rose just called him Doctor, as if it were a name and a title in one–said, "Close the doors, will you? Your ship's about to blow up. There's gonna be a draft."
I did it. And then I didn't crumple against the closed doors and start laughing hysterically, which, believe me, was a hell of an achievement.
"Welcome to the TARDIS," the Doctor said.
For a crazy, terrifying, soul-in-freefall moment, I thought he meant a real TARDIS. And I thought about wrenching the doors open and running back into the fireball.
Sanity caught up with me a second later, of course. If I wasn't a fast thinker, I wouldn't have survived this long. If you had a ship like this, of course you'd name it Tardis. Just like people call cities Avalon or mountainous planets Shangri-la.
"Much bigger on the inside," I said. I didn't quite hit "nonchalant," but I damn well nailed "not gibbering." I was proud of myself.
The Doctor locked eyes with me. "You'd better be."
It wasn't a threat any more than a glacier or a freight train is a threat. Threats can be argued with or bargained down or countered.
Well, I'd already known the man was incredibly dangerous. To me, at least. At the end of the mess-which-I-wasn't-going-to-think-about-yet, he'd flensed me to the bone with words–not insults, just a cold, clear analysis of the horrible thing that I'd made happen. He'd left me with nothing but childish protests–but I didn't mean to, I didn't know, as if that had ever mattered to anyone, anywhere. So after I escaped (I always escape–whether I deserve to or not, I always escape), I turned my ship around–my stolen Chula warship, full of systems that I didn't entirely understand and wasn't qualified to tinker with–and tried to catch a bomb in a stasis field that I knew I might not have fixed right.
In other words, because the Doctor talked to me, I nearly died a hero. That's not just dangerous. That's deadly. If you ever meet someone who can do that with words, and you don't trust them with your life and soul–and it's bone-deep stupid to trust anyone like that even if they're your mother and a canonized saint–
But believe me. Believe a conman on this one thing. If you ever meet someone like that. Just. Run.
From there, though, the evening got better. And considering that I'd just escaped from certain death, that's saying a lot. For one thing, there was Rose. I would say she was playing Good Cop to the Doctor's Bad Cop, but that implies strategy, and she didn't have one. Or an agenda. Or a game, or a plan, or a role, or any of the things that usually give you a handle on people. She just wanted to have a few dances and celebrate the fact that everybody lived.
(Not much thanks to me. But I wasn't going to think about that yet.)
So after a lot of Glenn Miller and a three-way waltz which was fun, if chaotic, we ended up in a sort of den– or sitting room, I guess, since both Rose and the Doctor had English accents. (Entirely different English accents; they weren't from the same place any more than they were from the same era.) The Doctor found something to toast with in a liquor cabinet that looked like real teak (fifty thousand Halandrian credits if it was cloned, well over a million if it wasn't, and why was I pricing things in my head when I didn't intend to steal from these people?) I didn't recognize the name, or even the writing on the bottle–you can't really be an expert in all eras without a working uplink–but it tasted the way yellow caelia flowers smell and it felt like a slow-burning coal.
I considered trying to match drinks with the Doctor. It's an easy way to win respect in a lot of eras, and Time Agents specifically have our livers modified to process ridiculous amounts of alcohol. Then I noticed a glint in his eye and decided I was smarter than that. This ship had to be from further up the line than I was, probably much further. The remarks the Doctor had made about small brains implied that even if he was related to h. sapiens mundi, he considered himself a different species. He didn't read like a civilian any more than he read like a Time Agent and I had no idea what sort of mods he was carrying.
Besides. Did I want to provoke a dominance match with this man? No. No, I did not.
Rose, on the other hand–it took absolutely nothing at all to get her talking about herself. It wasn't ego (believe me, I know ego); she was quite definite that nothing exciting happened to her before she met the Doctor. She just couldn't imagine that I might not be safe to confide in.
"So, this Shireen," I said at one point. "Girlfriend?"
Rose sputtered for a moment. "No! What–why do–did I make it sound like–"
"What you get for takin' the American language patch," the Doctor said. "Don't know what mate means to the rest o' the world."
Rose turned pink. "Friend," she said. "Best friend. So–you're not actually American, then?"
"No, I picked up my patch on the black market. When you're a criminal looking for a dead language, you take what you can get." Besides, sounding American in London is a nice excuse for getting trivial things wrong.
That provoked a reaction–a startled blink, followed by growing distress. "Ever read Beowulf?" the Doctor asked her.
She shook her head. "Didn't do A-levels, remember?"
"Wouldn't understand it without some sort o' translation, anyway. 'S English, technically, but nothing like you'll ever hear in your world. Hwaet, we gardena in geardagum, theodcyninga thrym gefrunon, hu tha aethelingas ellen fremedon–fifty-first century English is at least as different as that. Doesn't mean you've gone and gotten invaded, or destroyed, so stop thinkin' that."
I reminded myself not to pigeonhole the Doctor by the way he sounded. During my time in nineteen forty-one, I'd gotten used to British accents of all kinds, gotten a feel for which ones were considered high-status and genteel. His wasn't. It had a rougher edge to it. Not the sort of accent you hear and think, that guy probably has some ancient literature memorized. Much less that he would quote it like that, with a sense of quiet, rolling power.
God, he was sexy. In a not-sure-I-even-liked-him, playing-with-fire sort of way.
But that was a lot less startling than what Rose had just done, which was exactly what the Doctor told her to. She "stopped thinking that," instantly. He said there wasn't a problem so she quit being worried. Reality had spoken.
I don't even remember what it's like to trust someone like that. I'd sooner leap off a cliff.
"When are you from?" I asked her.
"Two thousand and five, why?"
"No particular reason." That–well, it might be the reason these two weren't swiving like rabbits. Time gives you advantages that an amateur doesn't even notice, everything from a better understanding of psychology to minor genemods that make you seem sexier. He could have a hell of a lot of power over her, if he chose to take it. Maybe he was keeping his distance because he couldn't be sure how much of her attraction was her own choice.
(How I knew they weren't going at it: I'm not sure how to explain, honestly. If enough of your life depends on reading people, you just know. She trusted him, loved him, was attracted to him, and was entirely uncertain how he felt about her. For his part, there was something dark in his attitude–I'd gut myself to keep her safe from me, don't think I'd do any less to you–but also an almost adolescent confusion. I think she likes me. Me. Isn't that against one of the laws of the universe? Should I maybe pretend I don't notice?)
It still left a massive mystery: why he'd brought her along in the first place. No matter how I turned it around in my head, I couldn't get that to make sense. "I'm glad," I said. "The twenty-first century is good."
"Yeah? Why's that?" She expected a punchline. When she smiled, she poked her tongue out between her teeth. I knew at least one planet where it was an obscene gesture, and it was insanely cute.
I turned up the smile a few notches. "What do you think?" Slightly more seriously, "There are times and places where women have to treat flirting as a threat. And I hate having to visit them; it gets rid of, oh, about eighty percent of my conversation." Everyone likes a man who can poke fun at himself. Did I do it because it was part of my personality, or because it put people off their guard? And should it bother me that I didn't know? "If you were from one of those times, I'd have to feel guilty about dancing with you. And that would be tragic."
"Afraid you don't remember how it goes, guilt?" the Doctor said.
"Ignore him," Rose advised.
"He stopped the bomb. Remember? Large, round, explosive–"
"Deadly," I put in. "I nearly died a fiery, valiant, heroic death."
"Nah." And the Doctor was all ear-to-ear grin again. "No way I'd let you ruin this day with any o' your 'dyin'' rubbish."
After that, I told a few stories about me getting into trouble, clothing optional. (Everyone may like a man who can poke fun at himself, but everyone loves to picture me naked. How many of the stories are true–well, I am a conman, after all. Embellishment may have occurred.) Rose giggled and sometimes blushed. The Doctor seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself, but now and again I noticed his eyes on me.
It isn't often that people can make me feel naked. Nudity doesn't make me feel naked. But I felt like the Doctor could see right through my skin.
And then, at what felt like three in the morning, the party broke up by mutual consent and we all went off to bed. Alone, but just this once, I wasn't complaining. I knew what was coming.
I closed the door of my new room behind me, leaned up against it, and started to shake.
Gas masks. Gas masks that pushed their way out of peoples' faces, out of their mouths, like malevolent snouts. All of humanity transformed into horrible, pitiable zombie-things with flat glass eyes, shambling through their crumbling cities in search of a mother they would never, ever find, forever frightened and forever lonely and all because some stupid, stupid conman had a bright idea–
That was if the paradox didn't collapse the space-time continuum, but for whatever reason, that possibility wasn't hitting me half so hard. Too big to deal with, I guess. The thing that kept going through my head was the sound of the gas mask growing, the smell of it, like cooling rubber, the–
My room had an attached bathroom. I stumbled in there and threw up everything I'd eaten since I was twelve.
I was pretty much done–still heaving, nothing coming out–when a hand landed on my shoulder. I made a sound that bore absolutely no resemblance to a terrified six-year-old, twisted around, remembered halfway through reaching for it that my sonic blaster was entirely useless, and prepared to fight barehanded for my life.
"Here," the Doctor said. "Wipe your mouth."
I took a deep breath. Then another one. Then I said, "Do not–"
The Doctor gave me a look.
I changed my tone mid-sentence. "–sneak up behind me, please." I took the wetwipe he was holding out. "Thank you."
A very, very small nod of acknowledgement. "Now drink this. Sip, don't gulp." It was a glass of water. He followed it up with a toothcleaner capsule. I bit down on it, waited for the cool non-taste to fill up my mouth, and then spat into the sink.
"Feelin' any better?"
I was still shaking. "Not–maybe a little bit." The Doctor nodded and steered me out of the bathroom, over to the bed. He sat down next to me, not touching. "It–it's just–Algy. Algernon Carlyle. He was–he was just a bit of fun, really, a way to pass the time while I waited for you, but that doesn't mean I didn't–" I swallowed hard. "He'd never been fucked by anyone who actually liked him, before. I had to teach him things I knew when I was fourteen. He liked lacy underwear, which would have been adorable except it was all tied up in this tangle of contempt and hate and desire, more of a compulsion than a preference. I knew I didn't have the cultural background to understand half the things that were eating him alive, so I just tried to enjoy him and make sure he knew I wasn't ashamed of him, and he drank it all down like he was dying of thirst. And I saw–I saw his eyes bulge and stretch out and turn into glass, I saw–and I did that to him. I did that to him."
"Easy, lad." For once, there wasn't the slightest edge to the Doctor's voice. I remembered that he'd called me lad just after I caught the bomb. "Your Algy's all right. I saw him. Same daft face he had all along."
I nodded jerkily.
The Doctor studied me, the corner of his mouth quirking very slightly. "You never did run a con in Pompei."
My inner alarms woke up, not all at once, but with a definite feeling that they'd let something past them. "Of course I–"
"Do not lie to me."
I sat absolutely still for at least five seconds. Then I said, very carefully, "Technically, all I said was that Pompei would be ideal for self-cleaners. There are a number of reasons not to use it. For starters, something about that particular place-time gives vortex manipulators fits."
"It would, yeah," the Doctor said. "But that's not why you stay away."
I forced my tone to lightness. "Well, no. It's depressing, knowing that everyone you meet is going to die next week. I don't do my best work under those conditions. Call it a character flaw."
"Don't think I will, if it's all the same." After a moment, the Doctor added, "You did all right there, at the end. You were stupid–criminally stupid–and you should be shakin' at the thought of it. But you turned around. You came back. And you saved lives. You hold onto that, hard as you can." He gripped my hand, as if to demonstrate. "Keep it with you. Use it to burn away the nightmares. You. Saved. Lives."
Gods of my ancestors, the things this man could do with his voice. I mean, I think I'm a smooth talker, but he made those three words into something–something like a call to arms, and more. You saved lives–it sounded like one of the great slogans, like all for one and one for all, not just something a person says but something they could be–
Someone else, maybe. Not me.
The Doctor let go of my hand. "You gonna be okay, now?" he said, in a perfectly normal voice.
"I'll be magnificent." I made myself smile. "Probably going to feel all right, too."
The Doctor snorted and stood up. "Get some sleep, Captain. There's analgesics in the cupboard if you need 'em." He nodded toward the bathroom. "Think your ego's a touch inflamed."
And he was gone before I had a chance at a comeback. I let my breath out and lay back on the bed. I was alive. I was alive, and that was the important thing. It's who I am, in a way. Never a hero but not quite a villain. Never making the world better, but not making it all that much worse, either.
As far as I know. I'm missing some memories–approximately two years worth, according to physiological dating–and during that time, I could have been anything. A murderer. A rapist. Or, okay, a shining beacon of justice, but I think that's pretty unlikely. I know myself a little better than that.
Even if I'm not always sure there's anything underneath the smile.
Back to index
Chapter 2: Stranger
Author's Notes: I should probably mention that the last scene of Chapter One bears some strong similarities to Yamx's story "Reaction." I may have gotten the seed of the idea from that fic, although I didn't do it on purpose. At any rate, "Reaction" is another Jack's-first-day story that is better than mine, and everyone should go read it.
The ship woke me in the morning with a startlingly good simulation of sunlight. For a moment, just before I opened my eyes, I was convinced that I was back home–really back home, on the Peninsula. Red-tailed pteris squabbling over fish. The ocean over the hill.
Just one of those unsettling tricks that a person's mind plays on them between waking and sleeping. The room's WyndO was set to an ocean theme, but it wasn't a planet I recognized–
The room's WyndO. I stopped where I was, halfway out of bed.
Dammit, I should have noticed last night. The room had a floor-to-ceiling WyndO. The bed had a built-in headrest, fully adjustable–a wonderful change from twentieth century pillows, awkward lumps of stuffed cloth that somehow always ended up on my face by the end of the night. The chair looked fifty-first century too; there was a knob on the side to adjust the softness. And the bathroom was modern. All nice and familiar.
And it shouldn't have been, not if this ship was from as far up the line as I thought it might be. Most people wouldn't believe how crude twentieth century bathrooms are; it stands to reason that in a few thousand years, everyone would think the same about ours. It should have been barely comprehensible to me.
It gave me a little bit of a chill. The Doctor hadn't given any sort of order for a room to be prepared. There weren't any other crew. Or–uncomfortable thought–if there were, they were impossibly silent and stealthy. As far as I knew, this was just a spare room that happened to be furnished. Perfectly. By purest coincidence.
Question of the day, maybe the most important question in my life right now: who were these people?
Someone knocked on my door.
Twenty-first century dress codes at a minimum. I could work with that. I called out, "Just a minute," pulled on my trousers, and answered the door shirtless, barefoot, and disheveled.
It was Rose. I saw her eyes dip, watched her run her eyes over my muscles and try to decide whether she liked what she saw or really liked what she saw, and then visibly reboot her brain. "Um. Hello. I mean, good morning."
I grinned. Yesterday there had been a few too many hellos as Rose struggled to get herself unflustered. "Good morning."
"I came to show you to breakfast," she went on gamely. "You didn't see the kitchen last night, an' it can be hard to find your way around this place. Might end up at the swimming pool, or . . . something . . ."
She might as well have put up a holosign saying and now I am picturing you in even less clothing. "And that would be terrible," I said solemnly, then flashed another smile at her. "Yeah, give me a minute to find my shirt." Needless to say, I knew exactly where my shirt was. "You can come in if you want."
"Thanks." She followed me inside. "I'll bet there're some shirts your size in–" She looked around the room. "Over there. I think. Is that s'posed to be a dresser?"
"Close enough." I went over and prodded the clother. The shirts were in the first compartment I chose. "So, you've got a twenty-first century room?"
"Sort of, yeah. 'Bout half the furniture looks antique. The wardrobe is a proper Narnia wardrobe, which–is a book they probably don't read in your time." She crossed over to the WyndO. "What's this, then? Wide-screen TV?"
"Pretty much." I put a shirt on. It fit as if it had been tailored. "They started using them during the Solar Storm Exodus–don't worry, the human race was sophisticated enough to evacuate by then." And after her reaction to me calling English a dead language, I wasn't going to mention all the weird legends surrounding Starship UK. "They're a standard feature on all starships and in most cities. Supposed to stave off claustrophobia-induced stress disorder. You should probably get one in your room."
She smiled. "Nah, the garden's jus' two doors down from me. If I start to feel cooped up, I go there."
"Garden?" I shook my head, not in denial, but a bit of incredulity. "I suppose I should expect that kind of thing from a ship named Tardis." The next compartment in the clother had shoes. Proper shoes, not nineteenth century monstrosities that'll grind your feet to bits if you don't wear socks. They felt wonderful.
Rose frowned. "What d'you mean?"
I followed her into the hall. "About the Tardis? Well, the originals were supposed to be–" And now she was looking at me like I'd sprouted a second head. "Two thousand and five. Right. TARDISes are–part of a legend, you could say."
"Yeah?" Rose looked interested. Extremely interested. The Doctor hadn't told her any of this; I could see it.
"Yeah. Nobody believes a word of it, of course. But they say–" Rose steered us down the corridor. I counted doors automatically with the back of my brain. Always know your escape route. "They say there used to be a race of–gods, for lack of a better word, who protected the universe from temporal crises of all kinds. Paradoxes, temporospatial whorls, collapse events. They were either the first intelligent race to evolve in the universe or they didn't evolve at all, just sort of–were there, since the Big Bang, one of the things that makes reality run right."
Rose was giving me the oddest look I'd gotten in a while. "What're they called, then?"
"Riiight . . ."
"I didn't come up with the name." I thought back to my early days in the Agency, the stories people told partly to see if the cadets were dumb enough to believe them, but partly because, late at night, they seem realler than the senseless equations that actually make the universe run. "Let's see. They looked human, but their eyes were either fiery or pure black with stars. Or maybe they were hyperspatial entities who wore humanoid suits because their real forms would drive people mad, or maybe they were beings of pure thought who projected a telepathic image into your brain. They were geniuses, immortals, telepaths, maybe shapeshifters, they could see a person's history at a glance or read their future in a touch. They knew the true names of all things and spoke a language that every being in the universe comprehends. Anyhow, apart from being ridiculously powerful in themselves, the Time Lords allegedly travelled through all time and space in ships called TARDISes."
We were at the kitchen, and it was–odd. A hodgepodge of different eras. There was an honest-to-goodness fireplace on one wall, currently unlit and large enough to roast something considerable on a spit. There was also a flashchiller from my own time and a stove from a little bit beyond Rose's.
The Doctor was nowhere in evidence. "He's usually here for breakfast," Rose said, when I remarked on it. "Mus' have gotten caught up in tinkering with something. He doesn't sleep much, so he spends most nights doing jiggery-pokery. Nearly exact quote."
"Not many really good no-sleep mods in my time," I said very casually. "How far in the future is he from?"
I got another odd look. "I think you'd better ask him . . . anyhow, you were telling me about these mythical," she hesitated, "Time Lords. And TARDISes."
"TARDISes were miracle ships," I said. "They were bigger on the inside, like this one; that's probably why the Doctor chose the name. They were impervious to harm. They were telepathic, just like their masters, and invisible. They could rearrange themselves at their masters' whims." Which meant, among other things, that if a lesser being somehow broke into a TARDIS, it would become an inescapable prison unless some Time Lord felt merciful. "Which is one thing this Tardis doesn't do, or it wouldn't need all those corridors."
"Well, neither of us is a Time Lord."
"Mm. True. Although I'm not sure about your friend–" Rose looked startled. "Just kidding. If he was a Time Lord, you wouldn't be here, and I'd be dead or worse. Besides, even in the stories, they're extinct." Given the powers attributed to them, I had no idea how that would even work; just one of the bits of illogic that legends are full of.
There were silberras in the stasis box. They look a little bit like grey kiwifruit (or extremely moldy eggs, if you ask someone who doesn't like them) they have purple juice that stains absolutely everything, and they're delicious. I took two. Rose had been breaking eggs into a frying pan, but she turned all the way around when I said dead or worse. "Hang on, I thought the Time Lords were s'posed to be the good guys!"
"Good for the universe. For the people in it?" I shook my head. "Even in the softer version of the legends, where they were enlightened as well as powerful, they never had much use for animals like us. Not people, in any real sense; more like archangels without a god to hold them back. What they did to individuals who caused paradoxes was bad enough. But if a race discovered time travel and had a history of instability, of making stupid choices, well, the next time you stopped by that planet, you'd find that they'd never evolved." Rose's eyes widened. "Which is, yes, impossible," I added. "We're talking about fairy tales here. And in a way, it's pretty good evidence–"
Rose was looking past me. I stopped.
"Finished?" the Doctor said, very quietly.
All the alarms in my head went straight past mauve alert to oh, shit.
His voice was absolutely level. And icily, lethally furious. When I turned around, I half-expected him to be pointing a blaster at me.
He wasn't. He had his arms folded and was trying to glare holes in me. I met his gaze and regretted it; I felt like the air had been knocked out of me, and I wasn't sure I could look away again. You should not be able to pack that much wrath into two ordinary eyes, however intense they might seem.
"Jack was telling me some fifty-first century campfire stories," Rose said, sounding unnaturally bright and chirpy. "Just silly stuff really–"
"And that's just the one he happened to choose, is it?" He looked at Rose, eyes still like blue lasers. I had no idea how she didn't flinch. "No. You went fishing, Rose Tyler."
"It's nothing–" Rose said.
"Not to me."
This time, Rose did jump. I felt all my muscles tense, and mentally calculated the distance between him and me. Four long steps. Not good.
The Doctor's throat worked as he forced his voice back under control. "Not to me," he repeated, back to cold and scathing. "Came to tell you both; there's something that keeps tuggin' at the TARDIS and I want to see what it is. If you two want to come with me, eat fast and be in the console room in fifteen minutes. If you want to play like you're safe from–"
He chopped off that sentence, turned on his heel, and stalked out. Very fast.
Rose blew out her breath.
"What," I said, "the hell was that?"
"God, he throws a worse fit than my mum." Rose turned back to her eggs. "Which sounds tote'ly wrong, so please don't tell him I said that."
I stared at her. She hadn't noticed.
All my instincts told me that the Doctor was at least as dangerous, in his own bizarre way, as a fifty-first century commando. I'd been trying to work out if I could take the Doctor down before he killed her. And all she'd seen was her best friend in a snit.
"Listen," Rose said, oblivious to my thoughts, "why don't you have these?" She indicated the eggs. "I'll get a bowl of cereal an' go on up to the console room. He shouldn't've gone off on you like that, but–" She let out her breath again. "Look, there are some subjects that he jus'–can't touch. Which is all right, really. I'm all right with it. Except I don't always know where they are, an' every once in a while I run right into them without knowing, so I was trying–" She shook her head. "I'm sorry. Shouldn't've put you in the middle of it. I'll talk to him."
I tried to eavesdrop outside of the console room, of course. The argument–whatever the hell it had been about–had convinced me that I needed information, badly. Even more badly than I had before. It didn't work, though. The doors on this ship were nearly soundproof even though they didn't look soundproof. Nothing to do but walk in and take whatever came my way.
The worst of it was, I wanted the Doctor to like me. Enigmatic, frightening, prickly, and so goofily proud of himself last night, when he explained how he saved the world with the help of an astoundingly brave street kid named Nancy and everybody lived, Jack, everybody lived! Or last night, when he came into my room to help me fight the shakes, despite the fact that he had no reason to care about me–
Almost like there was a very good man underneath the trillion-watt Keep Away signs. I don't believe in good men, of course, but if I did, I'd be pretty sure I'd found one.
Rose smiled encouragingly at me the moment I walked in. The Doctor knew I was there, but he busied himself at the console and didn't look at me for a moment. "Tua'amna," he said.
"Tua'amna?" Rose hesitated a bit on the name.
"Sister planet to Nehalu. The two of them, just about the same size, rotatin' around a common center o' gravity." The Doctor illustrated the motion with his fists. "But Tua'amna is just the tiniest bit smaller, and that makes all the difference. Nehalu's full o' life. Jungles, prairies, small seas–and people, too. Tua'amna is mostly cold desert and scrubland, nothin' more sophisticated than insectoids. The Nehaluar colonize it eventually." His voice went grim. "But before that, they use it for scientific experiments and weapons testin'."
"What, like nukes?" Rose said, and tried to look over the Doctor's shoulder at a display. "Is it radioactive out there?"
"This bit? Doesn't seem to be. Besides, radiation wouldn't have affected the TARDIS that way. We might be lookin' at somethin' a bit dangerous." The Doctor looked up at me. "You in?"
If he wanted to pretend like there hadn't been an argument, I was game. "Absolutely. I don't suppose you have a working blaster? Mine had a banana-related malfunction."
"No weapons on the TARDIS."
I blinked. "At all?"
"No." A glare.
I decided to let the subject lie. A moment later, we filed outside, the Doctor taking point.
Tua'amna was yellow. That was my first overwhelming impression. We were on a mostly-lifeless, rolling plain, all rocks and sand, which would have looked very Martian if not for the color. There was a dry, thin wind. The sky was orange around the edges and white further up. Nehalu hung halfway up the sky, about three quarters full.
There were plants, but nothing as pervasive as grass. The most common kind were dark red and had leaves that looked like suction cups. "Very–alien plant-like," Rose said. "I mean, what I used to think alien plants looked like. Before."
The Doctor wasn't interested in the plants. "Better pace yourself, Rose. Less oxygen than you're used to."
"Are we in danger?" Rose said.
He shook his head. "Bit like the Andes. Take it too fast and you'll get spots in front of your eyes. So tell me before you get dizzy, yeah? Not sure about the Captain." He looked over his shoulder at me. "I assume you know your own limits."
I nodded. Rose said, "Why would he be different?"
"Body mods," I said.
"What, like surgery?"
"Nothing major." Actually, I had a smuggler's pouch, a good one that wouldn't show the outline of anything I put in it. Pity I didn't have a holdout that fit right now. "A lot of them are just invisible, practical changes. I can't get certain vitamin deficiencies, for example. Handy if I ever end up on another long sea voyage. And, the Doctor's right; my lungs are slightly more efficient than average."
"Think I see a glint over that way," the Doctor said, pointing. "Metal or glass. Probably a research base. Let's go."
The Doctor wasn't treating this quite like a military expedition. He talked as we went. "The Nehaluar–they're birdlike, you could say. Actually descended from somethin' a little like your deinonychus, feathered pack-hunters which run down their prey. So they'll know we're aliens. Thing is, they'll be pretty used to the idea. A race doesn't grow up with somethin' like this hangin' in their sky," he motioned around us, "without investin' a lot of imagination in it. 'S not just as if Lowell had been right about Mars; more like it was there all through history, as close as the moon."
I didn't know who Lowell was; too much history for me to memorize all the significant names. I was stuck on another word. "Deinonychus. As in, more dangerous than tyrannosaurs, deinonychus." Rose looked at me, alarmed. "Think velociraptors, only bigger," I told her.
Rose stopped walking for a moment.
"And don't think of that fool movie," the Doctor said, annoyed. "Velociraptors are roadrunners with teeth. Yeah, the Nehaluar's ancestors were probably as deadly as wolves, but you'll notice I haven't taken you to meet the early members o' your family. Might not've been apex predators, but you still don't want to get a troop o' homo habilis riled. The Nehaluar are human sized, no stronger than you're used to, probably less endurance than you. And they're not monsters. They go on holiday and fall in love and write bad poetry when they're half grown. Just like you lot." He paused for a moment to step over a dried streambed. The red cup-leaf plants grew thickly along it. I wondered if there was water underground. "Can't outsprint one, though," the Doctor added.
Interesting. Very interesting, and not just for the info about the Nehaluar. Early members of your family, the Doctor had said. In other words, not Earth-descended at all.
Of course, there are plenty of humanoids in the universe, nearly indistinguishable from h. sapiens mundi until you get into non-obvious details like number of ribs or being fatally poisoned by caffeine. It's one of science's great mysteries and a favorite stomping ground for conspiracy theorists. Yes, the humanoid form is practical–versatile hands, feet that can both run and climb, brain in a nice tough container–but "close humanoids," as they're called, tend to come in the same general range of colors. The current theory (as much as a Time Agent can use those words) is that something unknown in the basic structure of the universe tends to weight the dice towards a specific pattern. But there are more disturbing ideas, some right out of the most paranoid of science fiction. I think we're property . . .
The thing is, close humanoids understand eachother well enough–at least in this galaxy–that we have trade relations and cultural exchange and brushfire wars and sex and all the other things that make people part of the same civilization. And nobody has the technology to make a ship bigger on the inside. So either the Doctor was from the far future, just as I had thought all along, or–what? From outside of explored space? From some race that had managed to keep a massive technological secret under the nose of every other sapient being? Not actually humanoid, a shapeshifter of some unknown kind?
"Doctor?" Rose said. He had bent down to examine something in the dirt.
I came up beside him and looked down. So did she.
"It looks like a caterpillar," Rose said. I thought it looked like a Halandrian fruitworm, only dun-colored.
"It's hurt," the Doctor said.
It was true. There seemed to be something wrong with the worm's back third or so. Darker and a bit shriveled, legs dragging. It was, I saw belatedly, leaving a brownish blood trail. Not long for this world, then. Even on a planet with only small arthropods, there'd be a hunting spider along soon enough.
The Doctor scooped the thing up, which made it thrash. "What's gone wrong with you, then?" he murmured. "Necrosis, looks like . . ." He turned the bug this way and that, studying it, then retraced his steps for a few feet to put the caterpillar-thing on a rare flat-leaved plant. "There you are. Poor little thing."
"What happened to it?" Rose said. She didn't seem to find the Doctor's behavior odd at all. Stopping in the middle of a possibly-dangerous hike to rescue insects, business as usual.
If I believed in good men, he'd definitely count as one.
"Doctor?" she repeated. "What happened to it?"
I noticed, as we set out again, that the Doctor was keeping us to the low-lying landscape between the hills. However nice and civilized the Nehaluar were, he didn't want us sillhouetted against the sky.
We'd been moving for about seven more minutes, over fairly rough ground, when the Doctor stopped in his tracks.
Rose evidently thought he was listening for something, because when she stopped, I could hear her trying to breathe quietly. After all the rocky terrain, it was a lost cause, but she made a good attempt. I was a bit ahead of her at this point, enough to see the Doctor in profile, and for a strange moment I thought he was sniffing for something.
There wasn't much to smell. Dust. Well, and sweat; we had been hiking hard. The air was a little too cold for comfort.
The Doctor hadn't been sweating at all, from the look of it. And he had his eyes closed, his head tilted. His expression twitched slightly as if he were remembering something.
At that moment, I could believe that he was alien. More than just from another planet, I mean–different. Strange senses, stranger thoughts, incomprehensible desires–
Then his eyes opened abruptly and he said, "Oh," in the voice of a person who's just been knifed. "Rose. Jack. I need you to–"
"No," Rose said.
The Doctor turned. "What?"
"No, we're not going back to the TARDIS. You need us here an' we're staying."
"It's not safe." The Doctor closed his eyes again for a moment. "More than not safe. It's nothin' you should ever have to see. It's–"
Rose stepped closer to him. "Doctor," she said more softly, "I told you. I'm not going anywhere."
The Doctor studied her for a moment, then looked at me. "That go for you too, Jack?"
Of course it didn't. I was an escaper, a survivor–a coward, if you wanted to be blunt about it. A scoundrel, not a knight errant. I–
I'd just said that, hadn't I?
"Unless," I added belatedly, "it looks completely unsurvivable. Then I'm throwing Rose over my shoulder and heading for the hills. No offense, Doc. You're cute, but I don't think I can carry you and run."
Which was, apparently, exactly the right thing to say. The Doctor gave me a short, sharp smile and then got out his sonic screwdriver. (Still one of the more lunatic ideas I'd heard for a while. Sonic. Screwdriver. Why?) "That's a vortex manipulator, isn't it?"
He meant my armband. "Broken one, yeah. The comm and the computer work."
"Give it here."
Only an idiot would let a mysterious, dangerous near-stranger poke at their only technological edge. So, naturally, I unstrapped the manipulator and handed it to him.
"Mad way to time travel." He turned it over and popped the back open with the sonic screwdriver. "Dangerous." The screwdriver trilled. "You want it fixed for normal use, you'll have to do it. I won't be a part of it. But it's still got a hyperspatial coil inside, however shoddy–" The screwdriver changed pitch. "There!"
"There, what?" Rose said, preempting me. The Doctor closed the back of the vortex manipulator and tossed it back to me.
I put it back on my wrist and checked the display, which wasn't telling me much. But I could feel a vibration from it now, as if the coil was powered up. It was doing something, or preparing to do something.
Perhaps I should take it off and throw it as far as I could.
Perhaps the Doctor was the only one who knew what was going on, and I should follow his lead until I knew better.
"Shieldin'," the Doctor said. "More or less." He took a deep breath. "Rose. The thing I always say, about not wanderin' off–"
"The barrage balloon was–"
"Listen to me, will you? This is important. Stay close to Jack. That vortex manipulator will shield you two from time distortions, but only within five feet or so. Get outside that, and–it won't be good." The look in his eyes said that not good meant beyond the nightmares of Dalek fighters and past the gates of Hell. "Whatever you do, whatever happens, stay close to Jack."
Rose swallowed. "What'll you be doing, then?"
"Same thing, but I'm not goin' to tell myself not to wander off, am I? That'd be daft."
Which sounded more like the normal Doctor. "Doc," I said, "what's going on?"
"Don't call me that."
Rose took hold of my hand. The Doctor took her other one, and nodded us forward.
"Doctor, what's going on?"
"I told you. Time distortions."
"How do you even know that?"
There was a pause. Then the Doctor gave me a surprised smile. "You're really as thick as you look."
It came out with a sort of wonderment to it. I can deal with insults, but I don't know how to field an insult that sounds almost as if I'm being forgiven for something.
"Never you mind," the Doctor went on. "Keep close to us, that's all. Rose's life could depend on it. Now come on."
It didn't occur to me until a few moments later that he'd given me back the vortex manipulator. He had no reason to trust me, but he put me in charge of our protection.
Back to index
Chapter 3: Warrior"Wait." I pulled us up short. "There's something–that hill over there–"
"I feel it," the Doctor said shortly, in the exact same tone anyone else would say I see it. It wasn't anything mystical, or even the vagueness that psis occasionally go in for. He was just working with a different set of senses.
"It's blurry." Rose leaned forward and squinted, not letting go of either of our hands. "It's a sort of red–blur–thing–"
"It's chalicewort. Just a plant, blowin' in the wind." The Doctor took the lead, steering us away from the hill. His expression was set and grim and very, very forbidding.
Rose shook her head. "It doesn't look like–"
"Except," the Doctor went on, as if he'd always planned on continuing the sentence, "it's past a differential. Time's runnin' faster on that side."
I blinked at it. It did look like one of the low scrub-plants being blown by the wind, only sped up to a ridiculous degree. You get a similar background flicker in nature holos which show seeds growing, if they don't edit it out.
"An uncontrolled time differential," I whispered, half to myself. "What could do that?"
"Something this way, now stop wittering and march."
There was a square grey building ahead of us. It was set in a sort of dip, an old meteor crater, perhaps. So we had a good long time to see the Nehaluar sprinting in our general direction.
He looked saurian, sort of. Knees that went the opposite of human knees, long stiff tail with feathers, feet with two huge toes apiece, and a face with a short muzzle. He had dark brown skin and a crest of feathers running from the spot between his eyes to–as near as I could see, he was coming towards us–his tail. He also had feather fringes on his arms. His plumage was mostly forest green, speckly, but the tip of his head-feathers were dark red, which is why I decided he was a he in the first place. With birdlike people, it can be hard to tell.
He was also fleeing in terror. He fell once and scrabbled to his feet with a frenetic, panicky motion that implied monsters right behind him. There was nothing there.
He saw us. I could see the shock from meters away; his whole crest spasmed. Then he turned towards us.
The Doctor started forward, still holding on to Rose's hand. "No!" He made desperate warding measures with his free hand. "Stay there! There's a moving–"
And then the Nehaluar seemed to hit the empty air, and stick. His head froze as if grabbed by a vise; the rest of him convulsed. I could see the wave of immobility overtake him, from head to chest to hands to legs, pinning his thrashing body as it went. It was an unnatural posture of agony, composed of several seperate muscle spasms over the course of a minute. It would have looked incredibly, horrifically wrong even if he hadn't been suspended mid-air, mid-leap.
Rose lunged forward.
I think the Doctor and I both yanked her right back at the same time, which must have hurt; she yelped. I said, "Rose, no, you have to stay with the vortex manipulator–"
"He needs help–"
There was a short silence.
"He's dead," the Doctor repeated distantly. "The temporolentation hit his brain first. The heart would have managed on its own for a few beats, just long enough to force blood into the brain. Since that part of his body was slowed, the blood couldn't leave again, producing a cataclysmic pressure increase. Brain, crushed. Eyes, ruptured. Soft tissue, better not to think about." He started forward again. "Best way to go, in a time storm."
We were walking toward the horrible floating corpse. That was bad enough. The Doctor's voice was worse. It was very matter-of-fact, very calm–where calm is the windless, oppressive space under unearthly greenish skies just before the funnel cloud descends. "Best?" Rose said, in a strangled voice.
The Doctor's tone didn't change at all. "Never ask."
Dread can get so strong that it actually hurts, and this was close. My throat and my stomach were clenched. The space-time continuum had turned gruesomely murderous. I couldn't run from it or fight it or even see it. To get to the source of the problem, we would have to walk towards at least one patch of horribly wrong distorted time, only marked by a bloody-eyed corpse that hadn't begun to fall. And the only thing between me and death was a broken vortex manipulator that had been converted into I-didn't-know-what by an alien of uncertain provenance using a sonic screwdriver.
"Doctor?" my voice said. It sounded funny, like a recorded message.
The Doctor didn't seem to notice me until Rose squeezed his hand.
"I think you should get on the other side of me. Hold my other hand. Get you closer to the vortex manipulator."
Something ancient and desolate and very far away looked at me through the Doctor's eyes. It focused on me by degrees. By the time the Doctor met my gaze, he almost felt like a person again, and not a living gate into deep and horrible dimensions.
Almost. Luckily, I was already too frightened to be spooked. "Doctor," I said hoarsely, "over here. It's closer to the manipulator." I wiggled my hand.
"I don't–" He looked at my hand, then at me. "Trying to keep me safe, is it?" Very much not to my relief, he let out a peculiar, not-quite-sane giggle. "Why not?"
When he let go of Rose's hand, I had a momentary, overwhelming dread that he would dash out into the time storm. But he just strode over and took my other hand in his.
"Doctor," Rose said, "remember. We're here an' this is now."
She got a very slight nod in return, and then the Doctor stepped forward. Which meant that I had to walk forward as well.
There is no scale in the universe that can measure how much I didn't want to.
The Doctor's hand was cool. Not icy, just cool and dry. A sharp contrast to Rose's hand, which was sweating as badly as mine was.
We were about five meters from the corpse. I wondered how I could know if the vortex manipulator was working. I couldn't hear Tua'amna's constant wind. Was that because this basin was shielded from it, or because it had stopped around us, or because the time distortion was preparing to pounce, or just because my pulse was so ridiculously loud?
I didn't think that the coolness or the steadiness of the Doctor's grip had anything to do with his emotions. I've seen that look before, or its nearest human equivalent. Veteran's eyes. The thousand meter stare.
Rose. Gods of our ancestors, the kid was good. We're here and this is now–the one thing he needed to know more than anything else. If he could hold onto it.
Four meters. Three meters. We had to be inside the distortion by now, didn't we? Did we? How were they shaped? How could you fight something you couldn't see?
Was the vibration from my vortex manipulator slightly more pronounced, or was I just imagining it?
We were even with the corpse. Walking past it.
And then there was a sudden gust of wind, and I made a noise like a frog, and Rose gasped.
"Far edge of the lentation," the Doctor said. "Air piles up a bit. You two all right?"
I nodded jerkily. "Lentation?"
It sounded like an Earth word. I wondered if it was.
We passed through several more bands of distorted time on the way to the gray building.
The temporoceleritations were worse than the slowdowns. (Why celeritation and not acceleration? I have no idea; maybe because acceleration already meant something very specific to physicists. I wasn't going to argue.) We were in a bubble of normal time, a little invisible bathysphere plodding onward through equally invisible death. And in the worst of the celeritations, anything that moved was invisible too, blurred out of perception by speed. It was almost as if we were creating things by approaching them, making reddish fog coalesce into scrub brush and particles of sand materialize out of nothing. It wasn't objectively more dangerous than the slowdowns, but my instincts said that things kept popping out of nowhere and that was bad, bad, bad, why wasn't I panicking yet?
And then a Nehaluar's head appeared out of nowhere, eyes wide and then suddenly bloodshot, and someone screamed, and I jerked backwards, holding the others' hands so tight that I'm surprised I didn't break bones, and–
And there was a corpse on the ground in front of us, feathers blurred into a fog by the accelerated wind. The same thing had happened to her than happened to the red-crested kid further up the hill. Only we were on the other side of it, this time.
Only we caused it, this time. Us and our little bubble.
"Stupid," the Doctor said. It was almost a whisper. "Stupid, stupid overgrown chicken, chargin' in, all, 'ooh, the aliens will save me,' didn't stop to think, 'what happens when I hit the time shear?' Never stop to think. You never, ever–"
"Doctor," Rose interrupted shakily, "the rocks."
The rocks in front of us had rearranged themselves. In a blur.
They said, Story 2 Lab 5 Glass Spike. And they said it in Englia 12.4. My native language.
I just gaped at it for a moment. I'd never even heard of Nehaluar before this. The Doctor had implied that they'd never seen aliens before. They couldn't just–how could they–
"Oh, smart overgrown chicken," the Doctor breathed. He looked at me and Rose. "Don't you see? Saw his friend go down, didn't go runnin' in, and used his head. No way to get to us, but he can communicate. Did communicate." A sudden grin, only slightly broken. "Fantastic! Now we know where to go."
We both opened our mouths, but Rose got her question out first. "How can he even be alive out there? It's–" She motioned helplessly with her free hand.
"'S not the celeritation that kills you, is it? It's the differential. The shear. But we need to move. The bands are shiftin', the distortions aren't stayin' in one place–even if he has the sense to sit still, the shear could sweep across him and kill him. Can you two run? Jog, maybe?"
"I can try," Rose said.
"I won't let go," I promised. "Of either of you. But, Doctor, how can–"
"You just worry about Rose first. Now, run!"
By the time we made it to the squat gray building, I was wheezing. Rose was staggering. The Doctor hadn't been joking about the low oxygen content.
He also didn't appear to be having any problems of his own. Maybe, I thought, he was an artificial sapient. It would explain the room temperature skin. "Doctor?" I said.
"How did that Nehaluar know Englia?"
"I'll explain later. Door's this way."
"Your jaw will not fall off if it stops waggin', Captain, now move your feet!"
Rose squeezed my hand. "I'll explain later if he doesn't."
That made even less sense. Rose, as far as I knew, was as unfamiliar with Nehaluar as I was. Unless she and the Doctor had been here before–
"I can hear you, you know," the Doctor said. "Said I would explain, didn't I? So I will. Just not now."
The burst of action, not to mention the directions from the unseen Nehaluar in the celeritation, seemed to have distracted him from his memories, at least. We found the door hanging open and went in, an awkward group clinging together like mountain climbers. The inside of the building looked spare and industrial and not much different from human architecture. There are only so many ways to build corridors.
And this part of the place, at least, was in normal time. I saw the Nehaluar come out of the nearest room at a perfectly natural speed.
His right arm was hanging limp and one side of his face was bleeding badly. I remembered the damaged insect and thought about ways to die in a time storm. What would be worse than going brain-first? Going brain-last, of course. Or getting your arm stuck in slowtime, struggling to free yourself, not knowing whether the shear would let you go or creep across the rest of your body–
The Nehaluar screamed and charged at Rose.
I didn't think. I let go of both their hands and drove a vicious kick into the Nehaluar's hip as he dove for her, jaws gaping open. It landed like a dream; the Nehaluar flew sideways. I closed with him, to fist-and-elbow range, not giving him a chance to react. Such a long, long neck these beings had, a throat punch should disable him nicely–there–and break some bones in those feet, and–
"Jack! Jack!" It was Rose. "It's fine. He's down, you don't have to kill him."
She was right. I'd broken some of his bones; he wasn't going anywhere. I stepped back, breathing hard.
Rose knelt down, prudently out of range of his teeth. Nehaluar, I had just learned, have sharp inward-curving teeth, and in extremis, they will try to use them in combat. "We're here to help," Rose said. "We have to get upstairs. Where are the stairs?"
She was speaking twenty-first century English. No good, I thought.
I wouldn't have thought the Nehaluar could talk after the throat-punch. His voice came out as a broken rattle, but it was still more or less comprehensible–in Englia. "Can–see you–"
"Where are the stairs?" Rose repeated. Of course, she couldn't understand him.
I wasn't sure why I could. Englia, here–and he wasn't speaking it like a foreign tongue, either, he sounded vaguely Solar–
"Think you're–invisible–I can seeeee you, aliens–"
"He's raving," I said. "Let's go." Used to the idea of aliens, sure. Twentieth century humans were used to the idea of aliens too, through all their books and movies. I remembered an ancient flatscreen drama from my Classical Media class. My professor thought it was about the disturbing psychological implications of motherhood in a culture that characterizes femininity as defined by sacrifice. I thought it was about a freighter that followed a mauve alert and found bad things in the dark. This Nehaluar was on a planet not his own, being attacked by an unknown, invisible malevolence; of course it was aliens. What else?
Any of these Nehaluar, if sufficiently panicked, would blame us for the crisis and attack us on sight. And in this situation, anyone would be sufficiently panicked. I took Rose's hand, turned around to warn the Doctor, and found that he had wandered a good five meters down the corridor, checking doors methodically.
I said a word in Englia that translates more or less as animal rapist, grasped Rose's hand tightly, and ran for him. "Are you out of your mind?"
"Listen, Doctor, you may not care about your own life, but if you die here Rose will–"
I don't usually lose track of conversations this fast. "What? What for?"
"For watchin' our backs. Been a long time since I've fought hand-to-hand. Changed a lot since then. Who knows if I still have the knack?" He grabbed my hand and pulled us both onward.
Upstairs was worse.
My vortex manipulator was vibrating more. Some of the lighting panels had developed green-black spots, like bruised fruit; for all I knew, they were bioluminescent and rotting from lack of nourishment or old age. There were several more corpses, in worse state than the ones we'd seen before. One of them seemed to have been decaying for days; apparently the differentials didn't kill bacteria. Rose covered her mouth and nose and averted her eyes as we went past. There was one Nehaluar, possibly still alive, caught in a reversing loop. He would tumble to the floor, then bounce back up again as if made of rubber, over and over again. I hoped to heaven it was the sort of loop you can't feel when you're inside.
And the labs were numbered in Standard Terran Numerals, which still made no kind of sense. Unless, perhaps, a rogue time traveller had interfered drastically in their development–
When we got about even with Lab Four, I started to see the time distortions as shifts in the light, shimmers in the air. I saw a cold bluish curtain across the hall, saw it ripple and shift and then start to sweep towards us. Rose's grip tightened.
There was a body in front of the next door. Only it wasn't a body, because I saw it twitch and try to push itself up. I shouted, "Run!" and dragged both Rose and the Doctor desperately forward, racing the temporal shear, which was accelerating toward the fallen Nehaluar.
We got to her just as the celeritation hit. This time I felt it hit, felt it jar my vortex manipulator as if our little bubble had been hit by a physical force. And our bubble wasn't invisible any longer. I could see it, like a soap bubble between us and the time storm.
It wasn't a neat, round bubble. The edges billowed and heaved, and occasionally spun off smaller bubbles of normal time, which survived for a second or two before being subsumed. It looked unstable. It looked collapsable. It looked very, very unsafe, and I was trusting my life to it.
The light was bruised red inside the celeritation.
The Doctor was already kneeling by the Nehaluar we'd saved. She was in bad shape, bleeding in multiple places, left leg badly wounded, right arm nightmarish, and missing most of her tail. The Doctor tied some sort of white cloth over that last wound, but it became red in seconds–or what I assumed was red, since the light made it hard to tell.
Her eyes were open, and wide as she looked up at him. "Can you talk?" the Doctor said. In Englia.
In a very familiar accent: Ru Islander. From my planet, not far from the peninsula where I was born. More questions piling up–
"Y–" the Nehaluar started, and then managed, "yours?"
"What were you workin' on?"
His face worked. "Why do I always get the thick ones, yes, I'm alien, tell me what you were workin' on, you stupid creature! Was it a weapon? Is this what you were tryin' to do?"
"A-a-alien–machine." She groped with her working hand, and I realized there was something very like a crowbar on the ground. "Not sure w-what–h-help us–"
The Doctor picked up the crowbar. "Jack," he said, "carry her."
I said, "stay close," not because Rose didn't know but because I was frightened, and picked up the Nehaluar–just as another time shear hit us. This one turned the light ghostly blue, and I guessed it was a lentation. But it hit the bubble strongly enough that I could feel the impact, strongly enough that the skin of it flexed and billowed like a banner in a storm. It wasn't just getting worse because we were closer. It was getting worse because it was getting worse.
The Doctor already had the door open. He was perilously close to the edge of the bubble, and I moved forward.
The laboratory was full of electrical equipment and measuring devices. I recognized some of them, by general type at least. And most labs seem to have long tables of one sort or another; these were lower than a human would like to work at, but still recognizable. Everything looked a bit twenty-first century.
Except the thing in the middle of the room. The glass spike that the Nehaluar in the celeritation had warned us about.
It was hard to see. All the rippling currents of color seemed to emanate from its tip. This close, some of the time distortions were only centimeters across, but strong enough that you could see them warping the air. They lashed like agonized snakes. The cone itself was about a meter and a half tall, with something glowing in the base of it. I almost thought I could make out more glass inside it, like the tubes inside the Tardis's central column, but converging rather than parallel.
There was one or more Nehaluar corpses right next to it. No, I don't know exactly how many. No, I don't want to describe why.
I only had a moment to take it in, because our bubble was being jostled and jolted. The edge nearest the glass spike was starting to look more spherical, but I also got the sense that it was straining. The vibration on my wrist was strong enough to rattle my bones, and a bit off-kilter, as if something was spinning to self-destruction.
I realized that we were all going to die. I took a step, barely keeping my balance, and the bubble didn't move with me. The distortions were pushing it backwards, keeping it away from the spike. It was like trying to sail a toy sailboat straight at a giant fan.
And if we couldn't get to the spike, we couldn't stop it. How much worse would it get? How much wider could it spread? How many people were going to die because one cowardly conman couldn't manage–
The Nehaluar in my arms twitched. "Doctor," Rose said, "Doctor, I think she's dying."
"Yeah, probably." That eerie pre-tornadic calm again. "Blood loss, blood poisonin'. That arm's three days dead."
"I'm not that kind of Doctor," the Doctor said.
The time storm staggered me, pushing me backwards two steps, leaving the Doctor at the very edge of the bubble. We were all definitely going to die.
The Doctor lifted the crowbar and bared his teeth. "I'm this kind of Doctor."
He stepped through the membrane of our bubble, out into the storm.
Back to index
Chapter 4: HeroHe should have died in seconds. Less than seconds. Multiple ribbons of distorted time, running faster and slower and backwards and around in endless loops, all of them whipping through a person's body–completely unsurvivable, for life forms and artificials alike.
He was still walking forward. He looked like he was pressing into a wind, but that was all.
I stared. The distortions just–weren't touching him. Looking at the rest of the room was like looking through warped stained glass, red-shifted or blue-shifted and bent by spacetime itself. But I could see the Doctor perfectly.
Rose had grabbed my arm, hard. I barely noticed.
A near-black whip of time, perhaps stasis or a million-year celeritation or something even more unnatural, coiled toward the Doctor. He batted at it absently with his free hand, still straining forward. It broke into pieces and was subsumed in the tumult.
Temporal distortions didn't touch him. Time couldn't touch him.
Stories about Time Lords, on the other hand–those pissed him off. Oh.
And then he was in front of the glass cone, and put both hands on the crowbar, and swung it like a baseball bat.
The storm, and our bubble, shook at the first impact. Shook harder at the second. His third blow cracked it, and a fizzing confusion of distortion obscured my view for a moment so that I barely saw the swing that broke the spike.
The light at the bottom of the spike crackled and died. So did the time storm. All of it. All at once.
The vortex manipulator stopped whirring, and I could hear things outside our bubble again–or possibly we didn't have a bubble, since there was no more need for it. The first thing I heard was splintering glass, or stuff that looked and sounded like glass. The second was the Doctor screaming wordlessly as he took another swing. And another, and another.
Rose darted forward. "Doctor! Doctor!"
He froze, but didn't turn.
"It's me," Rose said. "It's Rose. It's all right, you stopped it. It's done."
For a moment, I was flatly certain that whatever turned around wouldn't look anything like a human. The mortal act, the human shell, had slipped away, perhaps permanently. What had been done to time here was an obscenity and there would be retribution–
"It's done," Rose repeated. "It's over. We're still here."
Then the Doctor dropped the crowbar. Rose stepped forward, unhesitating, and hugged him.
Rose trusted the Doctor–the Time Lord!–implicitly. And for reasons that might not even make sense to ordinary sapients, he didn't want to hurt her.
There were two other creatures in this room with no such guarantee. I was one of them. I had nearly created a paradox, nearly destroyed the human race before it could produce me, and according to every single legend I'd ever heard, the Time Lords had horrific punishments for that, whether it was done out of malice or carelessness or both. But the Nehaluar in my arms–she, or the team of scientists she belonged to, had attacked time itself, distorted it, hurt it with a piece of alien technology that might or might not have anything to do with Time Lords.
She was dying. She would probably be dead in moments.
Except, if the stories were true, the Time Lords could work around that. Loops and locked time and other endless nightmares.
I put her down gently on the floor. The practical thing would be to stand aside. Let the Doctor do whatever he was going to do. There was no way I could stop him if he wanted to hurt her.
Putting a dying insect onto a plant so it could have a last meal. Holding hands with a conman.
I knelt beside the Nehaluar. "What's your name?"
She tried to focus on me and failed. "W-who–"
"That isn't important right now, please, tell me your name."
I stood up and stepped past her. The Doctor had turned around and was regarding me expressionlessly, his eyes hard. I wanted to run. I wanted to scream. If I was wrong about this–
Loops. Locked alive in frozen time. I didn't want to think what could happen to me if I was wrong about this.
"Her name is Quenleil," I said. My voice sounded high-pitched and choked to me. "She probably has a family. And she didn't know what it was."
Rose opened her mouth. The Doctor waved her to silence, not taking his eyes off me.
"It was an alien artifact. They probably activated it by sheer accident. And as far as they knew, testing it on another planet was adequate containment. They couldn't possibly have known what it did. They probably couldn't have imagined. They were ignorant, yes, but they didn't mean to meddle with time. They're innocent. You can't punish them." Of course he could. "Shouldn't punish them. Please don't. You didn't hurt me, and I deserve it so much more."
The Doctor paced forward. He was glaring at me the way he had done in the kitchen, only this time he was doing it deliberately, very much in charge of the effect. I thought of the legends, thought, eyes of fire. You have no idea. Figurative is so much scarier than literal. I felt as if he could strip me to the bone with that look, peel away all my pretensions and self-delusion and leave me shuddering and empty in the dark.
"Are you standing in my way?" Quiet. Very quiet. Almost gentle.
"Yes. I am."
"Captain Jack Harkness," the Doctor said, and smiled suddenly. "There you are! Now stop being an idiot and budge over, I'm not going to hurt her."
I didn't manage a response. He stepped around me while I was still recovering and knelt beside Quenliel. She turned her head slightly. I don't think she saw more than a dark blur. "L-l-lab–five–"
"Shh. Shh now." The Doctor stroked the crest on her head. I noticed that she had bluer feathers than some of the other Nehaluar we'd seen. "The planet's safe. Both planets."
"Safe as houses, and you helped. Saved the world with this." He put the crowbar in her hand, closed her fingers around it gently, and gave her the sort of broken smile that people use when they're visiting a dying friend. "You're brave and you're good, Quenliel of Nehalu. And everyone is safe now, thanks to you."
"Oh–th-that's nice." She drew a very shallow breath. "My a-arm hurts."
And then she died. The Doctor closed his eyes.
A Time Lord, I thought, whose heart breaks when lesser beings die. There wasn't a single legend about that. And I had just bet everything, ever, that it was true. I felt breathless and more than a little giddy. I felt like giggling. I suppressed it with difficulty.
The Doctor stood up. "Right. Not quite done yet. Find every file, every diagram, every piece o' paper that has anything to do with the spindle. We're gonna burn them. And if you don't know, toss it on the pile. Check for wounded as you go through, but don't do anythin' with the dead, a lot o' Nehaluar have rules about that. Don't even close their eyes; it's disrespectful. Means they were too frightened to face their enemies."
"What'll you be doing?" Rose said.
"Pickin' out any bits of the spindle that they could learn from."
Her tone changed, became gentler and more worried. "So, you have seen one before."
The Doctor had a way of going from standing still to standing stiller. "Yeah." No inflection.
"You need me to help?"
"You wouldn't know what you're lookin' for. Jack neither."
"You could tell me. I could still stay."
The Doctor looked faintly exasperated, but I thought it was an affectionate sort of impatience. "Rose Tyler. Our lad here just worked out what kind of alien I am and discovered that he actually is a hero underneath the smooth talk and shiny teeth. I give him four minutes before he starts makin' any sort of sense and six minutes before he says anythin' worth listenin' to. I want you to follow him around and see he doesn't bash into too many walls. And I will meet you outside, now go on. Get!"
"He's a Time Lord."
"Yeah, I know."
I think we actually went through several versions of that exchange. "Blimey, I didn't think anything could throw you off-balance," Rose said after a few loops. "You all right, then?"
I dumped a drawer full of papers in the sack she'd found. Nehaluar filing systems weren't that different from early twentieth century human bureaucracy. I hadn't seen any computers, which was fascinating but irrelevant. And all the paperwork was still in Englia 12.4. I still didn't know how, but I had a pretty good notion of who. "I think so," I said, experimentally, in Englia. "It's like–imagine if a dragon crashed through that wall, right there, right now. And instead of eating you, he just wants directions to the nearest tava shop. It's surreal."
"You're telling me. The first time I walked into the TARDIS, I backed right out again, with a monster after me, because it was jus' too–" Rose waved a handful of papers vaguely, unable to come up with a sufficient adjective. "But you did fine with that. You didn't look seriously rattled until he tried to stare you down. You honestly thought he was going to hurt you, di'n't you?"
She was still speaking English. As far as I could tell, she hadn't noticed that I shifted languages. I wondered if it would work for languages that weren't our native tongues. "Yeah," I said, in thirtieth century Plainspeech. "For a moment, I really did."
"These legends–they're sort of warnings, then. Don't go changing the past because if the Reapers don't get you, the Time Lords will."
"I–sort of." That wasn't all of it. It was more that I knew how the universe worked. The powers that be, whatever they are, do not care and never will. Mercy costs, but casual cruelty is free. Good people die, bad people thrive. Ogres are real and more fearsome than you can imagine, but there are no heroes. If you think you've found one, he's just running a game. Believe me, I know.
Except that I'd met one of the powers of the universe, and he was a strange, damaged, prickly man who almost cried with joy when ordinary people didn't die. Except he'd held my hand at three in the morning, the hour when all your guilt comes home to mock you, and told me to remember that I'd saved lives. Except he'd just called me a hero. Looking at it objectively, stepping in front of an angry Time Lord isn't something you'd expect a conman and a coward to do . . .
He'd been testing me. But not just for his benefit. For mine.
"The myths are all ridiculous, anyway," I said. "I probably shouldn't even talk about them."
"Not with him, no." Rose decided to take my example and dumped a whole drawer of papers into the sack. "See, thing is . . . well, a couple of things. First of all, there's one bit of your stories that's true, sort of. The Time Lords are basically extinct. He's the last."
I blinked. "How?"
"He says there was a war. He says their planet burned. If he tries to say much more than that, he jus' sort of–chokes. But every now an' then, he'll hit something that reminds him of it–you can see it in his eyes–" Rose looked haunted. "An' up till today, I was picturing it as a war fought with spaceships and guns. I didn't imagine–should've, I guess. I mean, something called the Time War, you'd expect them to have Time Weapons. An' we've seen other things that've fallen through time from the War. This spindle thing came from there, I know it."
"So it's been–kind of a bad day, then."
"I'll bully him into taking us out for chips," Rose said. "It seems to help. Don't know why, but it does."
There was a huddled group of Nehaluar survivors about twenty meters from our bonfire. Most of them were injured. Rose and I had done a bit of first aid, but the hero of that particular battlefield had been a cute young intern named Shouil, who had spent the entire crisis stuck in a lentation and hadn't even known anything was wrong until the Doctor smashed the spindle. The Nehaluar who'd written the message in the rocks had survived too, tracking the distortions by pitching pebbles into the shear and noting where they stopped.
"Is that your language," I asked, "or Nehaluar? Really, I mean."
The Doctor was writing on the wall with his sonic screwdriver. I'd seen it used as a lockpick, a lighter, and now as a concrete chisel; no screws, so far, had been screwed. I wondered why he didn't call it a sonic multitool. For a moment, I wasn't sure he was going to answer. "My language doesn't translate," he said finally. "That's Davo'or. Most common language on Nehalu. Actually looks like this." The writing didn't seem to move, but it was suddenly a collection of incomprehensible symbols, mostly made of slanting and crossing lines. I blinked and it was back to Englia. "TARDIS translation circuit goes directly through my brain." He tapped the side of his head. "Any unfamiliar language defaults to your native one unless I tell it not to. Doesn't mean I'm readin' your thoughts, so don't start gettin' paranoid."
"I trust you," I said. The Doctor turned around and raised an eyebrow at me. "Well–working on it, anyway. Trying to remember how it goes."
"You'll do fine." He turned back to his work. "Turns out it's like ridin' a bike. You never actually forget . . ." He trailed off, concentrating on an unfamiliar glyph at the bottom of the message.
The message said, This technology is forbidden.
It does not bring knowledge.
It does not bring power.
It creates catastrophe.
Make no further attempts to use it.
You will not be this lucky again.
It reminded me a little bit of the "curses" on the glass vaults of Nevada. This is not a place of honor, no treasure is buried here . . . The sort of warning you put on radioactive waste.
"Not true, really," the Doctor said after a moment. "This stuff bein' forbidden. Wasn't actually a weapon."
It certainly wasn't something that could kill Time Lords. But I was equally certain he'd seen something similar which could. Rose was right; those had been war shadows in his eyes. "What was it? What was it really meant for?"
He unbent, then leaned against the wall beside his message. "Spindles in the TARDIS are for manipulatin' space. Creatin' new rooms, collapsin' 'em when they aren't needed, or for emergency fuel. This one did the same thing for time. Lots of uses for a whole new second, 'specially if it doesn't exist for anythin' outside your little box. Had to be broken in six different ways to do what it did. Still better not to have the Nehaluar pokin' into it. Time they have the physics to use it safely, this," he rapped the concrete lightly with his knuckles, "will've long gone to dust."
I nodded and leaned back against the building myself. Over by the bonfire, one of the Nehaluar was approaching Rose. The body language painted a bizarre picture; the predator ready to bolt like a rabbit, the weaponless girl moving slowly and cautiously not to startle him. After we left, the Nehaluar would have their own legends, of upright bipeds who appeared on the wings of disaster and left stern warnings in their wake. "I'm sorry," I said.
The Doctor looked honestly surprised. "For what?"
"This morning in the kitchen. And the Chula ship. And–" I shook my head. "I don't even know. I just–maybe I acted bravely today, but yesterday and the day before–" Words don't usually desert me. "My name isn't even really Jack Harkness."
"Yes, it is."
There was something unanswerable about the way he said it. As if reality had spoken.
"Might not be the name you were born with," the Doctor went on. "But it's yours. And it feels like a good one, so I'd look after it if I were you. It'll help with the yesterdays." He was silent for a moment. "Tryin' to frighten Rose," he added after a moment, "that's something I won't let stand. But it's not what you were after this mornin'. Next time, just ask before you go babblin'."
I blinked, perspective shifting on me again. I'd thought before that the Doctor could have extraordinary power over Rose, and it was truer than I'd ever dreamed. An ordinary shopgirl from two thousand and five, nothing special–except that she looked at one of the universe's elemental forces and saw a big-eared man in a leather jacket. It wasn't the chips that helped with the memories; it was her harassing him into it. You don't tease gods. You tease friends.
He depended on her every bit as much as she needed him.
"I couldn't scare her if I wanted to," I said. "I'm not even sure you could." I didn't add, and that's saying something, but I think he heard it anyway.
"Maybe not. You're all daft, y'know. You, her. Mad apes the lot of you."
"You wouldn't have us any other way, Doc."
He smiled. "That I wouldn't."
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