Evening was settling on Davesport as the three of them headed back to the TARDIS. Rougher elements were starting to come out of the woodwork, invigorated by the cooler temperatures, but three people together weren't a favored target, especially along the main thoroughfares, so they encountered no problems.
"So now what?" Jack asked. "D'you think we'll hear much more from Cap'n Mal and company?"
"Difficult to say," the Doctor told him, eyes narrowed in thought. "He can see a benefit to working with us, but he's been burned before, and badly. His first concern is for his ship -- his ‘boat’ -- and crew. But he's a man of principle, and he's been inspired to fight for greater causes before . . ."
"I wouldn't say he's too deeply principled," Jack said, dryly. "That whole ship is rigged for smuggling, if you didn't notice."
"I did, but how did you know what to look for?" the Doctor asked with a raised eyebrow. "I wouldn't go throwing stones, Jack. There's principled and principled, and Captain Reynolds might not pay much attention to Alliance laws, but he's got a good heart overall." He paused, and said thoughtfully, "River certainly thinks so."
Rose shivered a little, and not just with the growing chill. "Did they really damage her brain, just to make her telepathic?" she asked. The tone of her voice said she was hoping to hear otherwise, but didn't really expect to.
The Doctor sighed. "Worse than that -- they damaged her brain to make her a weapon. She's been conditioned for combat, with or without weapons, for killing without thought or remorse once her conditioning is activated. The telepathy is only part of that, to make her more effective. She can read her opponents' moves in advance, and react with impossible speed. The perfect killing machine, really. She would also double as a wonderful spy or assassin, for the same reasons." His tone was neutral, as were his features -- which told Rose exactly what his feelings were.
"Wonderful," Rose said.
"Oh it gets better -- or worse, I guess would be more accurate. This same government has, among other things, sponsored an experiment in drug-induced behavioral control that resulted in either death or insanity for the entire population of a planet. The insane ones are these 'Reavers' we've been hearing rumors about."
"So they are real?" Jack asked. "All the official channels say they're just a myth, but that's not the impression I've gotten of the rest of the 'Net -- 'Cortex', I mean . . ."
"Oh, very real. River and her friends have encountered them more than once. The last time, Serenity's pilot -- Zoe's husband -- was killed, and everyone else nearly so. River's conditioning came in useful, that time . . ."
"Are the Reavers as bad as they say?" Jack asked, looking somewhat queasy.
"Oh, yes," the Doctor told him, lightly. He didn't say more, and didn't need to. After a moment, he continued, "That touches on the matter of Captain Reynold's relationship with the Alliance and its Parliament, in fact -- he and Serenity's crew were involved in ‘outing’ the whole behavioral-control fiasco; we'll want to set the TARDIS looking through the Cortex for information on a planet called 'Miranda” . . ."
Rose cocked her head at him. “Sounds like River was . . . talkative,” she commented.
“Weeeellll, not as such, but she did make sure several things were in obvious ‘places.’ She made it less urgent for us to ‘powwow’ with Reynolds and his crew, but her viewpoint is . . . unique. Talking to someone less unique would be a help. Not to mention the benefits of having a starship Captain on our side, at the moment.”
Rose and Jack were both silent at that, remembering their current situation.
They arrived at the warehouse where the TARDIS was hidden, and the Doctor keyed the palm-pad on the door. The proprietor had assured them the security was top-notch when he’d set the lock for them. Nobody had quite believed it, but the TARDIS had a knack for looking after herself, and this way she was at least off the streets.
Things seemed undisturbed when they reached the metal cargo crate and the Doctor unlocked it. Inside, the familiar blue box hummed at them, and all three reached up unconsciously to stroke the weathered wood. The TARDIS was uncomfortable here, and needed a little extra reassurance.
Next to the crate was a pallet of spare parts from the junkyard, delivered as promised.
“I’ll get the hand truck,” Jack said, and disappeared into the depths of the TARDIS; Rose and the Doctor followed, and were laying out tools and supplies by the time he returned.
The next several hours were spent checking, disassembling, reassembling, and retrofitting the mismatched spare parts. They made good time, working together with practiced ease, mostly silent except for occasional necessary exchanges. Despite Jack’s earlier prediction, they were close to being done by local midnight.
The Doctor tightened the last bolt of the new power step module into place, down under the decking below the central column, and ran a worried-affectionate hand along the column’s housing. “There, girl,” murmured. “Nearly fixed up.”
Rose sat on the edge of the intact deck grating and dangled her legs down, watching. Jack stood next to her and stretched, hands on his lower back, arching till his spine popped.
The Doctor reached up to take Rose’s hand gratefully as he vaulted back up to the main level of decking, his usual bounce distinctly muted. It had been a long couple of days.
“How’s it . . . feeling?” Rose asked anxiously.
The Doctor plopped down next to her on the edge of the grating, and bowed his head.
“Still uncertain,” he told her, honestly. “The Vortex in this Universe is different enough, the TARDIS is having trouble adjusting.” He frowned. “So am I, for that matter. It’s disconcerting.”
“Once we get the repairs done, do you think the TARDIS will be able to navigate the Vortex here?” Rose voiced the concern that had been haunting all of them.
Uncharacteristically, the Doctor didn’t answer.
“You know what I think . . .” Jack began, still standing behind them.
“And you know what I think,” the Doctor replied, without turning to look up at him. “I’m still not sure Junior is ready for that sort of thing.”
“Aw, c’mon,” Jack said, wheedling. “He’s taken his first interface implants really well, and we were thinking of starting Vortex training with him . . .”
“In our own Universe, yes,” the Doctor told him, half turning. “I’m worried about accidentally imprinting him permanently on this Vortex . . .”
“Hey, you said yourself, he’s still young enough to be really flexible — the way a human kid can learn all kinds of languages when he’s young. I know he can handle this!”
Jack — not entirely without reason — was inclined to believe his young charge was capable of almost anything . . . and without a stable Vortex connection, they would still be grounded no matter how many repairs they made . . .
The Doctor sighed, and looked over at Rose.
“I dunno,” she said, thoughtfully. “I don’t think I know enough to decide. I think Junior’s fantastic, and he could probably handle it. But he’s so valuable, I’d be scared to hurt him by accident . . .” She shrugged. “You’re the TARDIS expert.”
“So I am.” The Doctor considered, rubbing an earlobe thoughtfully. “Speaking of our wunderkind,” he said, “he’d probably like a visit, and we’re due for a break . . .”
Rose bounced to her feet, and offered him a hand; Jack caught the Doctor’s other hand, and he practically flew to his feet with their help. Definitely time for a break . . . ! the Doctor thought, amused in spite of himself.
Deep in the “center” of the TARDIS’s maze of rooms and corridors was a particularly special room, wrapped in the deepest layers of the ship, as a parent will wrap protectively around a child. Of course, that was what Junior was, if one looked at it from the right angle.
Through the door, one encountered an open area at least half the size of the warehouse outside. The entire space was filled with an intricate white coral-branching structure — the physical component of Junior, Jack’s baby TARDIS. Junior was still quite young — he hadn’t yet encapsulated, or developed the ability to warp space and time so he could transcend dimensions within himself, nor had he been fitted with most of the intricate prosthetic machinery necessary for a fully-fledged timeship. But he’d come a long, long way from the small clump of branches Jack had brought onto the TARDIS in a shoulder bag.
Junior was happy to see them, and sent out a subliminal hum — already a little deeper and more masculine in tone than the TARDIS’s feminine “voice” — in greeting.
Rose took a few half-running steps forward, and leapt to catch a horizontal branch well over her head. She pulled herself up gracefully — her gymnastics training in action; working with Junior helped keep her in shape with it — and clambered through the branches to her particular spot in Junior’s network. As she settled onto “her” branch, it molded itself perfectly to her body, providing a marvelously comfortable “chair” for her to lounge in, a good fifteen feet above the floor of the room. Junior was beginning to be noticeably responsive to his family’s needs — exceptionally so, the Doctor had said. He’d gone on to speculate that Junior, being raised at least partially by affectionate humans, rather than coolly-distant Time Lords, might be developing an emotional depth and perception unusual for TARDISes.
“Sorta’ like being raised by wolves, huh?” Rose had asked him, teasing.
“Given your particular case, that may be truer than you think,” he’d shot back, making her laugh.
“Showoff,” Jack yelled up at Rose, referring to her ascent. He chose the route of a series of ladderlike branches off by one wall, himself, and began climbing.
“Jealous!” she yelled back, and settled more comfortably into Junior’s embrace. The purr running through the branch against her back and backside felt suspiciously like shared amusement.
The Doctor followed Jack with easy agility, and Rose smothered a grin. She’d never quite been able to get the Doctor to admit to any primate ancestry, but he was amazingly at home in climbing situations, and she had her distinct suspicions that the Time Lords might not have come from such high-and-mighty evolutionary stock as he liked to imply.
The two of them went to the first prosthetic implant site, about five feet above Rose, and ten yards to her right. Jack and the Doctor had just installed the first panels that would later become the central control interface around the core column Junior would eventually begin to grow.
She watched, as best she could, from her vantage point, while they ran through their usual diagnostic checks.
“See?” Jack said to the Doctor. “He’s adjusting perfectly. That’s my boy!” he told Junior, patting the control panel, and a faint, delighted tremor ran through the whole network of branches.
Rose couldn’t see the Doctor’s face, since he was turned away from her, but she felt his hesitation. “I’ll . . . think about it,” he said. Then, in a brighter tone, “That reminds me — it’s time to get some sleep.”
“We’ve still got some work to do on the replacement parts,” Jack said, meaningfully.
“Oh, you and Rose can handle that,” the Doctor told him with airy certainly. “In the meantime, I have a date with a young lady . . .” he tapped his temple meaningfully.
“Oi!” Rose called from her branch. “Should I be jealous?”
The Doctor turned and smiled down at her. “Should you? You realize that’s not the same question as ‘will you,’ or ‘need you,’ or any number of similar things?”
“I realize you’re ducking the question,” she told him, mock-offended. Then, more seriously, “River?”
“The same. I want to get her perspective on these odd dreams, and what better time and place to do it than while we’re having them?”
The Doctor swung gracefully down to a lower level (Rose bit her tongue), and settled onto his own special branch. “I think this is as good a spot as any. Carry on, why don’t you.” He beamed first at Rose, then at Jack, before he settled beck and folded his hands over his stomach.
“C’mon, Rose,” Jack called, “Let’s leave him to his beauty sleep.”
Rose ducked down through the branches, and then dropped the last bit to land neatly on her feet beside Jack, who had taken a less adventurous way down.
“After all,” he continued to her in an undertone, “A thousand years old, he probably needs it.”
From high above them, the Doctor called down, “I’m not asleep yet, thanks!”
Rose laughed, and pulled Jack back in the direction of the control room and the last of the needed repairs.
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