A Teaspoon And An Open Mind: A Doctor Who Fan Fiction Archive
Other Doctors
Alex by schrodinger [Reviews - 8] Printer


I hate traveling by Ring.

I told Boss so once, a long time ago. It didn't me do any good. He looked at me, and with the barest hint of disappointment in his voice, said “Are you afraid?” Because fear leads to mistakes. Mistakes lead to failure. And I was not going to fail him, so I shut my mouth and used the Ring.

It's not like going through the Vortex. The Ring takes you to this nothing place where you tumble slowly end over end, weightless, boneless. After about three seconds or three million years — there's no way to tell — a sense of gravity slowly returns. Once you feel where down is again, go toward it. Swim down until your feet press into something and it presses back. Easy. I grind my teeth until my jaw aches, every time. But it's always gotten me where I needed to be.

Until now.

With Murphy in one hand, I slowly eased my head up out of the grass and scanned the terrain, plains dotted by low rolling hills streaked with open stands of short forest. Nobody in sight; not so much as a building or a road in fact.

It was supposed to be a world of huge cities, bristling with skyscrapers and swarming with aerodynes. It was supposed to be Kanzares. I was dressed for Kanzares. Goddamn it, I knew this was going to happen some day.

I glared at the thing around my wrist. The Ring was not particularly pretty: a wide band of dark gray metal set with three dull green stones. Whenever I tilted it slightly I could see a pattern chasing the surface, like a double figure-eight, complex but delicate and repeated in a fluid chain all the way around. I don't look at it too closely; there's something about it that draws you in, a fascination.

Now I was going to have to go back and tell Boss what had happened to keep me from finishing up business. I was so mad I'd have thrown the piece of shit in the air like a clay pigeon just to see what Murph could do to it. But it was still my ticket home.

I stood up and twitched aside the long slit skirt of my dress and put Murphy back in the holster on my thigh. Then I pushed my thumb down on the stones — middle, left, then right — and waited for them to start glowing that hot lime-green that meant I was on my way again.

Nothing. I tried again. And again. Shit.

Maybe it was out of gas...no, three pieces of top grade Zeiton-7 ore that size should have lasted until the 'Verse collapsed.

I wasn't worried. Pissed off, yeah, but not worried. The Ring left a trail as distinctive as a snowflake, if you knew what to look for. Boss would start to miss me in a day or two. It was just a matter of time until he tracked me down. Until then my assets consisted of Murphy, a necklace that concealed an ident chip linked to a good-sized credit account, and a couture gown in bronze foamsilk.

Time to go meet the neighbors.

The gown was a bitch, but then it was designed with seduction in mind, not hiking. The dainty little sandals weren't up to the job; I kicked them off after a half-mile and went barefoot on the soft grass. I kept to the low ground until I found a little stream winding through the hills and followed it downstream. About four miles later, I came to some fields. They were overgrown with weeds, but I remembered something about farmers taking part of their land out of rotation every year, to let it rest. Improved the crop yield, or something.

Not long after that I came to a graded path that bore traces of treadmarks from a small cultivator and what looked like biped foot traffic. Colony world, then. Haila, I might get a real meal tonight. If I was slick about it, the farmers would offer me a bed, clothes, the use of their comms. I'd tell them I'd been on a slaver — those were pretty universal. I'd tell them that we were being taken to one of the pleasure planets — I didn't know which — to be sold, and that I'd managed to smuggle myself into one of the escape pods and jettison. That could explain both the fancy clothes I was wearing and the lack of supplies I had on hand. The way most colonists felt about slavers, I'd probably get Robin Hood treatment.

The stars were coming out when I spotted the first roofline, over the hills just east of the fields. The path curved in that direction, and a moment later I reached the crest of a low hill and saw the town about half a klick downslope.

Forty or so units, typical modular block shelters designed to be thrown together in a hurry. But well arranged, and some of them even had the starts of landscaping. A couple of large units stood in the center, colony stores. That's where I'd find the vehicles, tools, comms.

I waited for a bit longer, but couldn't see anybody moving around down there. Probably all inside for the night. Better if I came in before dark anyway. I didn't want to have to come up behind some inexperienced farmer serving night guard duty; it wouldn't be healthy for them, and I might not get invited to stay for supper.

Keeping an eye to my surroundings, I started down.


***


“Hello?” I called out. “Anybody here?”

That's what I'd been doing ever since I hit the edge of town, different variations in Galstan, Morok, Draconian, and a half-dozen others. Now I stood in the center, between the stores in what would probably be a nice town square someday, with a pretty fountain and an ugly monument to the colony leaders. Assuming there was anybody around to build one.

Either they were in hiding, or they'd abandoned the place altogether.

I debated a moment, then headed for one of the dwelling units and knocked. No answer still, and after a moment I went to the keypad and punched the biggest key. The door opened as I expected it to, because nobody ever bothers setting a security code on these things. “Hello?” I tried one last time and then I went inside.

The lighting was dim, but gradually it brightened as the enviro detected my presence, and I could see that I was standing in the main living quarters. Basic and functional outlines, but there were homey touches here and there: holoportraits, colored rugs and pillows, a vase on the dining table. I tasted the stale tang to the air, noted the layer of dust on everything, and broke off a petal from the flowers in the vase to test. It crumbled to dust between my fingers.

I explored the kitchen next. There were a few ration bars in one cabinet, which I quickly scooped up. The contents of the cold-storage were past recognition, and I shut the door quickly to keep from gagging. Sleeping quarters I found next. Closets full of clothes, toys scattered around, toiletries lying out on the bathroom vanity; evidence of daily routine and nothing else.

Most of these places are solar-powered, idiot-proof. Eventually I found the controls and fiddled with them for a while, checking the climate controls, the water purification system, everything, until I had convinced myself that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the unit. It had just mothballed itself, waiting for the inhabitants to come back. For months, maybe. Years, even.

Why?

The controls output was in Galstan, spoken by something like eighty percent of the spiral for millennia. The holos I saw around the place didn't help either. Family portraits of Mom, Dad, Dick and Jane, species unknown to me; not human but pretty close. I dug around for a while but turned up nothing more specific, nothing that could have told me where I was or what had happened here.

The air was getting fresher all the time. I stripped the gown off and helped myself to the closets. The jumpsuit and boots I ended up with were both a little too big, but they'd do. Back in the kitchen, I tasted the water from the tap. A little flat, but drinkable. I filled up a cup and used it to wash down one of the ration bars. Then I hauled in a blanket from one of the beds and curled up on the couch. Tomorrow I'd go through the other units, find the stores, tools, the comms. Send an SOS and hope Boss got it soon; meanwhile keep trying the Ring and hope it just might start working again.

The lights autodimmed after a while, following a programmed schedule. But I lay awake in the dark, thinking about how disappointed Boss would be that I hadn't finished up on Kanzares, until my eyes got heavy and I let them close.

Some real sleep would have been nice. Instead I dreamed that I used the Ring again. It took me to Nowhere just like always, only there was something waiting there. It was the size of a moon, maybe, or tiny. One moment it looked at me with huge empty eye-sockets, then with a woman's eyes. It sang to me and I came. I let it coil around me, wrap me like a spider spinning a cocoon around a paralyzed fly. When it began, gently, to suck at my skin, I knew it was feeding on me. I knew it wouldn't stop until it pulled every last bit of life from me, and I knew there wasn't a damn thing I could do.

When the noise woke me up, I was almost glad.

***


Sudden, violent storms were nothing out of the ordinary on these newbie colony worlds. You need a tax base before you can afford common luxuries like weather controllers. Even so, it sounded like hell out there.

The unit was flexible metalplast with a driven pile foundation, quality construction built to survive hurricane, flood, earthquake, lightning strike. Good thing, I thought, as a gust of wind slammed into the walls and crawled howling over the roof. I felt the walls tremble in aftermath, listened to the trees rattle like dice in a shaker, and with a sigh, I sank back down onto the couch. It grew quiet, long enough that I thought the storm might have blown over. Maybe I could get some sleep after all.

My eyes were almost shut when I heard something moving past the unit.

I got up and moved to the portal window, nudging the shade aside to look out. Couldn't see anything, but the back of my neck was prickling. I pulled Murphy out and set him to max, and then I went to the door.

What I was about to do was not the best survival strategy. But Boss might land any time, looking for me. He wasn't going to walk into something bad, not on my watch.

Stars glittered overhead, so many it was like fairy dust spread across the sky. I edged along the wall toward the corner, careful to keep in the shadows. The wind moaned, a low heartbroken sound, but under that I could hear the noise. It sounded like something being dragged.

I was about to sneak a look around the corner when that feeling came over me again, the same one as in my dream. Like I was being drained, a little at a time.

Behind me, something hissed.

Turn and fire. That's what I wanted to do. So why the hell couldn't I move?

A slow dragging noise, this time coming from behind me. I stood there with a cold sweat on my brow, with Murphy in both hands, paralyzed. Just like in my dream.

“Straight ahead through town,” someone said in my ear, softly, “fast and far as you can. Don't stop for anything.”

My limbs were stone. For the first time in a long time I was really afraid. “I can't.”

“You can. Concentrate on moving your feet. And when I say run, run.”

I can't, I thought, and then I heard an explosion like a grenade going off right behind me and one word, shouted over it: “Run !”

I gave an almighty jerk and my left foot suddenly came free, like I had been standing ankle-deep in mud. The right followed and I stumbled forward a few steps, then broke into a run.

The fastest kilometer of my life later, I topped the hill overlooking the settlement right into a patch of bushes. I collapsed to my knees, taking cover in the branches, trying not to pant too loudly. But it was all right, I was alone. They hadn't followed me.

Neither had my rescuer. I heard another explosion, down below. Another. Then all became quiet, as quiet as death.

For about an hour I crouched there, while the sky gradually lightened to the east. When the sun broke over the horizon I left my hiding place and went up to the crest. Nothing moving down there; that was all I could tell.

Boss would make for civilization. That's where he'd expect to find me waiting. I had to go back down there and use the comms, send him a warning at least and hope he'd pick it up.

I picked my way downslope, using vegetation for cover whenever I could. When I hit the edge of town, I found something.

It looked like a worm, a huge segmented worm, seven feet long and as thick as a tree trunk. The head was broad, slightly flattened, and mostly mouth — a red hole ringed by small sharp teeth and short tentacles. I couldn't see any eyes. Something had struck it just below the head, shattering the tissue like a fragmentation grenade. In front of the unit I'd been staying in last night, I found another one, killed the same way. It was lying almost in front of the door where it must have died, less than thirty feet from where I had been standing last night.

In the center of the village, right in that nice little town square that was never going to be built, I found a third one and the body of a man.

He lay just five feet away from the thing, one arm flung over his face. It must have killed him the same time as he had killed it. I squatted down and tugged at his arm until it came away. Younger than Boss, mid-thirties maybe, with tousled brown hair and green eyes. They stared up at me and I reached up and closed them for him. I figured I owed him that much, whoever he was. He'd saved my life.

As I was moving my hand away, he sneezed.

I shot to my feet and backed up fast, Murphy in my hand. He turned his head and blinked at me. “Oh,” he said, “you again.”

I could have sworn he hadn't been breathing. And that had been English coming out of his mouth, not Galstan. “I thought you were dead,” I accused.

He sat up and sneezed again. “Dusty,” he complained. “Knocked me out, that's all. That last blast came pretty close.” He clambered to his feet and stood there unsteadily, looking down at the corpse beside him.

Not just English, but English-English. As in The Stones, EastEnders, Winston Churchill, Premier League Soccer. And that costume he had on — the merino sweater in maroon-red with the collar and untucked tails of a slightly wrinkled white oxford shirt showing underneath, the dark brown wool overcoat, down-at-heel jeans and weatherbeaten canvas sneakers — it was classic geek from around the turn of the Second Millennium.

“You can put that away,” he said, “Guns won't stop these things.”

Maybe, but I was not about to take his word for it. “Then what did?”

The barrel twitched up again to cover him as he reached a hand into his coat pocket. He didn't seem to notice. He pulled out a metal sphere and held it up, pinched between thumb and forefinger, for my inspection. It was an inch in diameter. “Compressed sodium chloride,” he said, “Works every time. So far.”

“Salt?” I said, skeptically.

“Salt. It's not just good on chips, you know. Hypertonic. Disrupts the electrolyte balance and causes instantaneous cellular collapse.” He dropped it back in his pocket. “This is my last one, too.”

I took another look at the ruin on the ground. “What are they?”

That was the wrong question, because he was now eying me as if suspecting I might be a little dim. “Don't you know where you are? This is Kanzares.”

I stared at him until I was convinced he meant it. “Kanzares is a Prime World. Eighty billion people.”

“Was a colony world. Who knows, they might have made Prime in a few centuries. But they didn't plan on the Fendahl.” He frowned at me. The gesture produced a wrinkle right between his eyes. “You really don't know what happened here? Why did you come?”

If he'd wanted me dead he could have stood aside last night and let them have me. And with that accent and those clothes...

I made my gamble. “Navigation trouble.” I made myself sound guarded. “I had to make a blind landing.”

“I've had some experience with those myself. Anything I can do to help?”

I lowered the hand holding Murphy and said, hesitantly, “I don't think I can get my ship going again. Not without a hand. I've got some credits, if you'd...”

After a heartbeat, he smiled at me. It was sunny and open, a child's smile. “Suppose I could take a look at it. A quick look, mind you. Where did you come down exactly?”

I pointed south. “Pretty far away,” I began.

“That's no trouble,” he said, “We can take mine.”

Just what I'd been hoping for.

***

The crow seemed to have all the answers on this place.

“Kanzares is where it all started. A freak accident of evolution, never should have happened. Ever strike you as odd, how often things that should never happen end up happening?”

That's what I figured him for, a crow, a professional scavenger. I'd run into them before and knew they often adopted anachronistic clothes and speech, although this one was carrying it pretty far. He must have noticed the trace from the Ring and followed me down. And he kept on lying about this being Kanzares, so he knew that's where I was headed for, which meant my initial trajectory must have been correct. I even wondered if he could have knocked me off course somehow, though it wasn't likely.

“The predator-prey ratio went absolutely mad. Lots of customers, nothing on the menu. Should have been a mass extinction all around, right? Wrong. You've got xenobiologists all over the Universe still scratching their heads trying to figure out what went wrong. Wonder what the survival rate for a Kanzares field xenobiologist is like?”

He was a hell of a talker, too. We'd been tramping along companionably for close to an hour now and he hadn't stopped chattering yet. Trying to put me at my ease. After all I was valuable to him alive, not dead. For the moment. “You said Fendahl,” I said, playing along, “What is it?”

“Well, by process of elimination, this planet evolved a single predator — the most advanced predator in the Universe. Feeds directly on the chemical energy stored in organic molecules. The Fendahl, the Eater of Life itself.”

“There were three of those things back there,” I argued, and used the opportunity to brush my hip against his. I figured it couldn't hurt my chances. And unlike most crows, this one was at least clean. I caught a trace of scent, something sharp and fresh that tickled at my memory and was gone in the next breath.

“Give it a year,” he said airily, “This planet will be a barren rock and all these young Fendahleen will have turned on each other, 'til there are only a few of them left. The strongest, hunting as a gestalt, evolving intelligence along the way. Eventually migrate. One made it as far as Earth's solar system, in fact.”

I remembered the food rotting in the cold-storage, the clothes and toys. “So what happened to the colonists?”

“I never did ask you,” he said, “what's your name?”

I tried another brush of the hip. Annoyingly, he didn't seem to be noticing. I wondered if he could be homoexclusive. “Alexandra. Alex.”

“I knew an Alistair once. Scottish masculine form of the name. Means 'Defender of man'.”

“And was he? A defender?”

“Yes.”

Just the one word, spoken with affection tempered by sadness. Definitely homoex. Haila, I was dealing with an old-fashioned boy here. I sighed inwardly and put a little distance between us, giving up that line of attack. “Is it much farther?”

“Just over this hill,” he promised, cheerful once again. “Although I warn you, it's probably not what you're used to.”

I stopped cold in my tracks.

“Well, don't worry,” he said, “It does work. Pretty well, consider–”

“No,” I said in a strained voice, but by then the crow had stopped too. There was a noise coming from somewhere ahead of us, like something being dragged through the grass.

“Can you move at all?” He spoke calmly, just as he had last night.

“No.”

“It's sensed you, not me,” he said as if it were a problem in spatial geometry, “It'll come straight for you.”

“Thanks for letting me know,” I said between my teeth. “What's your plan?”

Without a backward glance, the crow turned to the left and ran.

On my own then. Fine. Concentrate on moving the feet. There was still time if I could move my feet. I managed a step back. It was like I was trying to pull a mountain along with me.

The dragging sound became faster and I heard a long hiss, saw the head rear over the crest of the hill with the mouth parts churning. I struggled, took another step backwards, feeling weak. Another head appeared.

They started down the hill side by side. They didn't need to hurry. There was something graceful about the way they moved, like a banner waving in the wind, and I watched them come for me with a kind of detached interest. Advanced predator, I thought, Boss would want to see this.

When they were fifteen feet away the crow appeared at the top of the hill. He whistled and the Fendahleen paused. I saw his arm rise and fall. There was a noise, like a firecracker going off beside my head, and the world went silent and white.


***

Someone shaking me. My eyelids began to flutter, letting in snatches of the world beyond them. I blinked away the water swimming in my eyes and saw a shadowy outline emerge. It grew brighter, bit by bit, until I could see the crow's face hovering over mine. His lips were moving.

“Can't hear,” I said and he nodded and raised his hand. I felt his fingers on my head, pressing down sharply, and both my ears suddenly popped.

“Better now?” he asked.

“Yeah.” I turned my head, saw grass and the Fendahleen, dead, looked back at him and saw the sky, too. “Salt bomb?”

“Last one. I had to wait until they were close enough to each other to make it count. Are you fit to walk?”

I was dizzy getting to my feet, and didn't stop him when he moved to help me. We made it over the hill, where he unlocked the door of a blue box and tried to convince me to step inside, at which point all my doubts about his sanity reached culmination.

It was about nine feet tall and a little over four feet wide, with a stacked roof crowned by a little fresnelled lamp. There were narrow transom windows on each side, the glass painted dark blue except for translucent white lettering that read POLICE BOX, with the smaller phrase PUBLIC CALL sandwiched in between. On the left door there was a white sign lettered in black — something about advice and assistance. I reached out and put my hand on the door. The crate felt just like wood. Then it vibrated faintly against my palm.

“It's bigger than it looks,” he reassured me, “really.”

I pushed the door open and went inside.

Light overhead, but dim and flickering. I strained but could see nothing beyond shadows. “Come on, old thing,” he said, moving past me, “that's no way to behave. Turn up the gas and say hello.”

The lights slowly brightened, until I could see just what I had walked into.

The room was maybe fifty feet across, dome-shaped, with support columns like twisted stands of kelp. There were hexagonal cut-outs in the walls, hundreds of them from floor to ceiling, each with a translucent round center that glowed faintly. The floor was transparent, with a spiderweb of metal support beams underneath. There was a ramp, too, leading down below the floor into what must have been the rest of the ship. In the middle of the room stood a crystalline column that climbed all the way to the ceiling, and wrapped around that, a mushroom-shaped console which the crow — not a crow after all — stood working.

“How far south would you guess?” he called.

“South?” I moved closer, looking over his shoulder at the console, backlit with a soft emerald glow. There was long skinny readout, like that of an antique cash register, filling with digits as he tapped away on a keyboard. Toggle switches. Knobs. Cranks. Dials. An ancient telephone mounted to one of the panels, next to what looked like a snow globe. Was that a bicycle pump?

“You said you came down somewhere south of the colony. How far would you say?”

“Took me a few hours.” I slipped a hand down to my thigh. “Followed a stream, maybe eight, nine miles, until I found town.” Murphy came clear of the holster without making a sound.

“A stream, eh?” he said without looking up from the screen. “Any good fishing? I was just on my way to try my luck at Pandatorea. The spring run, you know.” His hand closed around a large lever.

I pressed the barrel to the back of his neck to get his attention. He went absolutely still. “Finger’s on the trigger if you’re wondering,” I said. “Both hands in the air.”

They came up, slowly. “What do you think you're doing?”

“Getting out of here. You're going to help, too. Unless you give me trouble, in which case I think a little splash of red might just liven up this place. Now clear those coordinates.” He hesitated, then pressed a button and the readout went blank. “Good boy,” I said, “Keep being a good boy and answer my questions. Are you the only one?”

“Only one what?” He sounded pretty calm for someone with a plasma gun about an inch away from his brain. My estimation of him rose slightly.

“Don't give me that shit. I know you're looking for Boss. You followed me down here thinking I'd lead you to him. Are there any more like you?”

“There's nobody like me,” he said. “Who's this Boss when he's at home?”

I prodded him sharply. “Playtime's over. Where are we?”

“Kanzares. I told you –”

“And you lied. Where and when?”

“I told you the truth,” he said with reproach. “This is Kanzares. The year is 3602.”

Deep, deep breath. “All right. I can get it out of you later. Right now we're going on a trip. Fifty-eight, zero, forty-four, sixty-eight, forty-eight by eight four from Galactic Zero Center, and make the temporal displacement minus one-six-three-nine solar years, local time. Got all that?”

“That's Earth.” He said it in a strange way. “England. London, 1963.”

How could he know the coordinates just like that, without an astral map? “That's right. Now do what I said.”

He hesitated, and then began to punch up a string of digits with dizzying speed. “Busy year, 1963. You've got the Beatles, Kennedy assassination, first woman in space, Martin Luther King marching on Washington. Could have done without Tab, I think, but that's America for you.” Without warning he turned around, both hands still up.

I jumped back, but kept the gun trained on his head. “That was stupid,” I said coldly, “Stupid gets you killed.”

His eyes, green as new grass, looked past the barrel at me. They seemed curious rather than afraid, like he’d been humoring me all along and there was nothing much I could do to him after all. “Such a hard girl,” he said. “How old are you?”

I blinked away sudden doubts and focused on the skin of his forehead. My finger began to lean on the trigger. “Eyes on the road, cupcake, or I'll drive myself.”

He started to turn, and then his left hand shot out and latched on to my arm. The gun crackled and the air exploded with blue fire, sailing just over his shoulder.

I soon gave up trying to bring the barrel around; he was far stronger than he looked. Instead I jabbed my thumb just under his sternum, which ought to have brought him down. Nothing. I was about to stop playing nice and just grab his neck — it's a tricky break using one hand, but I’ve done it before — when he hit me with a two-knuckled strike just above the heart.

It didn’t hurt. I just couldn’t stand anymore. When I fell to the ground I hardly felt the impact. I tried to move, issuing commands to muscles which seemed to have been disconnected from my central nervous system. Everything below the neck simply refused to check in.

There was this noise. No, scratch that, it was a fucking commotion. It sounded like a washing machine gone out of balance, like an emphysemic lion, and only vaguely like a relative dimensional stabilizer engaging, which is what it should have been if we were moving. Turning my head with difficulty, I saw rings of emerald light climbing up the time rotor. We were on our way somewhere.

A shadow fell across my face. “Now for you,” he said and because there was not much else I could do, I watched him kneel beside me and take the gun out of my hand.

He didn't shoot. He studied it for a moment, thumbed a latch, and from the bottom of the stock popped out a pulsing blue cylinder about the size of a piece of chalk, the power core. He inspected it. “That's rather pretty, isn’t it? Has distinct possibilities. Maybe a tree topper next Christmas.” He dropped the core in his pocket and flung the rest behind him. I never heard it land.

Then he looked down at me and said, “Do you know what that thing is around your wrist, Alexandra?”

Damn, I'd forgotten I was still wearing it.

“When I saw the trail in the Vortex, I couldn't believe it. A Time Ring. A round-trip ticket to wherever and whenever you want to go. No fuss, no muss, no bothering with all this,” he waved casually at the room around us, “just program it and off you go.” He picked up my limp hand and turned it this way and that, gazing at the Ring. “Never thought I'd see another one again.”

He put my hand down gently and sat back on his heels. “How about this: I'll let you off this floor and make us a cup of tea, and we can answer each other's questions. Nice and civil, no violence. All right?”

He held out his hand, and when I glared at him over it, hastily said, “Oh, right. Sorry.” Reaching over, he pinched my left earlobe, hard. Sensation flooded back into me. I gasped, because all my muscles were prickling painfully like everything had fallen asleep. He actually looked disconcerted. “Er, I left that a bit long. Can you move your fingers?”

I could, so I grabbed him by the coat and threw him, hard. He slammed into the ground with my knees planted on his chest. Then I crossed my arms at the elbows, brought them up under his chin and squeezed them together like a vise, pinching the carotid artery. Five seconds of this and even an Ogron will pass out.

The Ring around my wrist suddenly tightened. Pain arced through me, and I cried out as every muscle in my body suddenly went into spasm.

I awoke a few minutes later, curled up on the floor. He stood a few feet away, rubbing his neck and looking cross. “Must be a human,” he said. “Got to do everything the hard way, humans.”

“What was that?” I muttered thickly. My nerve endings felt like they'd been dipped in acid.

“Hurts, doesn't it? It's an antitheft feature. Somebody tries to take your Time Ring, you use a psychic trigger to give them a little shock. If you have a Rassilon Imprimature, that is.”

The Ring felt loose again. The pain was easing up. I sat up, slowly, and looked at him. Slight build, unimpressive height. He looked like a professor, like someone who spent his days running around with a butterfly net and a notebook. I’d tried hard as I could to turn that barrel.

“We'll skip the tea,” he said, “since you'd probably just chuck it at me anyway.” He leaned against the console and folded his arms over his chest. “Now, I'll go first. Where did you get it?”

“Time Lord,” I said, evenly, and both his eyebrows lifted. “Somehow I thought you'd be taller.”

He studied me, looking even more like a professor, one with a maddening problem to solve. “Who are you?”

“Who wants to know?”

“The doctor does,” he said.

“Doctor of what?” I retorted. “Proctology? You've definitely got your head up your ass.”

He remained unperturbed. “Just the Doctor, thanks. You still haven't answered me. Who are you, and what are you doing swanning around with that on your arm?” He nodded at the Ring.

Two options here, neither of them ideal. I could cooperate, spin a story and mix a little truth in, hope they didn't put me under the mind probe. Or I could work on him, get him pissed off and hope he either killed me or got careless enough to give me even a chance. I didn't have to think it over too much, but then I've never had a really good temper on me.

“You know who I am, or you wouldn't have been following me. Is this your genius at work here, Doc?” I began to laugh. “Saalaa. If only all Time Lords were like you. Boss could take Gallifrey without firing a shot.”

I stopped then, not because I was out of ammo, but because of what I saw in his face. Not anger, no. More like the look of someone who has just been drilled through the guts. I know that one pretty well.

“Gallifrey,” he said and there was the slightest catch in his voice as he said the name, “was destroyed in the Last Time War. Who are you?”

“Don't waste time. I'm not going to tell you where he is.”

Before he could say anything, the air erupted again. The floor beneath me shook, the console rattled, and over the dying shrieks of the relative dimensional stabilizer I heard a whump! whump! whump! as the matter interface came into phase. We were materializing. At least I hoped so, because my other guess was that the ship was breaking apart.

At last the time rotor dropped with a sickening thud and then everything became very still. Without looking he reached behind him and touched one of the controls.

A shaft of light struck my foot. I turned, squinting against the sunlight from the open doors, and then I looked back at him.

“London, 1963,” he said, ”Just where you wanted to go.”

I got to my feet and cautiously circled a little to his right until I could see the navicomp for myself. Coordinates were right. So he wanted me to lead him to Boss.

Outside those doors was one of our safe houses. This one had some of my favorite things. My most fabulous vintage miniskirts. That cute little MGB Roadster I loved to drive. And some nasty little surprises waiting for intruders.

I didn't smile, not until I had turned my back to him and was heading for the doors. Then I was looking straight ahead of me, so when my foot caught on something I almost fell. It was an old tire, lying half-buried in weeds. I stared at it and then all around me. Rusting iron gates, car parts, fencing, several old stoves.

There was a soft click behind me. I twisted around, but it was just the Time Lord, closing the door of his ship. He too looked around with interest at all the junk. “Oh, I love scrap yards. Are we in Wapping? Or Stepney?”

I should have been standing in the parlor, looking at the Louis Quinze sofa, the Rembrandt, the unremarkable black lacquer cabinet where Boss kept a set of comm equipment, for just in case. My hands curled into fists. “You tell me.”

“They're your coordinates,” he answered, mildly. “Might be a little spatial drift; she's an older model, you know. But near enough.”

I strode to the double gates and yanked at them. They parted with a squeal and I slipped between them and ran. Let him try and stop me if he wanted.

I recognized the brick two-story across the street, the one with the big white sign that read Televisions & Radios, New & Used hanging out front. But it was crooked, the paint faded.

About a block north I came to a pounding halt, ignoring the odd looks I got from the other pedestrians. It was the right intersection. There was the hardware store, and the grocer's. But the garage was gone. There was an apartment in its place. Not a new one, either.

I ran across the street, over to the newsstand. I knew the old guy that ran it. Whenever I was here, I'd buy a paper in the mornings and spend a few minutes flirting with him.

He was there, talking to another man. “Bill,” I said, “how's my lover man, then?”

He didn't grin and bellow, “There's me own dolly!”, the way he usually did. Instead he shot me an odd look and said, politely, “Morning, Miss. Paper?”

Without a trace of recognition.

***

I don't know how long I walked, trying to find something about this world that I knew, something that also knew me back. I boarded the Tube for Robart Station, only to find it didn't exist. Went to the Churchill and ordered a pint of Crenshaw's Bitter. The bartender never heard of it.

Dropped by Bazaar's, on King's Road. Full of Mary Quant all right, but the hemlines were all about five inches too long.

Gone into Westminster Abbey, looking for the tomb of George Frummsch, one of Boss's favorite writers. He wasn't there. They'd buried some guy named Charles Dickens in his slot.

In desperation, I kept trying the Ring, hoping it would start working. Not even a flicker in the fuel crystals.

The sun had been down about an hour now. I was headed aimlessly down the Embankment, numb, on auto-pilot. On the other side of Waterloo Bridge the path was partly blocked by a tall blue box. The Time Lord occupied one end of a nearby bench. He had a brown paper bag in one hand and a small audience of pigeons milling around in front of him.

I turned to go back the way I came and came up short. It felt like there was a chain around my left wrist, the one I wore the Ring on. I tried to twist the damn thing off then but it suddenly tightened, as if it were melding with my skin.

“Sit,” he said. “You look tired. Anyway, there's still some seed left.”

The birds scuttled back nervously. Ignoring the offered bag, I sank down on the other end and stared out across the water. The Ring began to relax again.

“Find what you were looking for?” He scattered seed on the walk and the fat little rats came back.

“This isn't London.”

“What do you mean? Of course it is. Just smell that air. Not too deeply, mind.”

One of the pigeons pecked at my shoe. I kicked at them in disgust.

“Suppose your London would be different, though.”

I was unable to let that cryptic remark slide. “What the hell does that mean?”

“Just a theory I've been tossing around. Supposing this isn't your universe. Suppose where you come from the Fendahl never existed. Kanzares is spared; it grows up, gets posh. Gallifrey...” He stopped. Then he crumpled up the empty bag and stuffed it in his pocket. “Ergo, this is not your London, see?”

“Parallel universes?” I scoffed.

“Why not? I've visited a few myself.”

“I'll bet you have.” I got up abruptly, scaring hell out of the few pigeons who were still lingering in hopes of another handful of seed. A dozen steps later, the invisible cord tugged on my wrist again.

“Or you could be an absolute nutter who managed to get hold of some artifacts somehow,” he said quietly, “That's another possibility. Only I don't think so. I don't think you're mad at all. What were you going to do on Kanzares?”

Because it didn't matter now, because I wasn't going to get to finish the job, I said, “I was going to kill somebody. Maybe get in a couple of hours at one of the day spas.” Silence. I glanced over my shoulder at him, and...well he was either the greatest actor in the 'Verse or the news genuinely bothered him.

As if he wasn't sure he wanted to hear the answer, he said, “Mind if I ask why?”

I shrugged. “Boss wanted me to.”

“That makes it all right, does it?” Still quiet, but not so calm now. “Who is he? This bloke you'd kill for?” I didn't speak. “Alexandra,” he said, more sharply.

I turned, wearing a pasted-on smile. “You know, he only ever calls me that when I'm in trouble. Or when he has a tricky job for me. Like one time when he asked me to do this teeny p-bomb for him. Fit in a lipstick tube, just the cutest little thing you ever saw. Can’t remember who we used it on now. He took me to Milan and bought me a dress after, I remember that. Roberto Cavalier. You don’t look like a shopper, Doc.”

Several moments passed while he considered me, his face thoughtful. Probably trying to decide whether it was worth the bother of taking me back when he could finish me off right here. “So what's it going to be?” I spat out impatiently, “You gonna disperse me or talk me to death?”

“I should be fishing,” he accused, as if this were somehow my fault. “Something like this happens every time I get the rods out. I don’t know why I bother buying new flies. I suppose it’s because I’m an optimist. It’s in my nature. Be interesting to see how yours turns out.”

“What are you talking about?”

He smiled as though we were going to be great friends. “How much do you know about TARDISes? With an extra pair of hands around I might try overhauling the relative dimensional stabilizer. You heard that noise, didn't you? Oh, and I've been meaning to fix the matter interface condenser; it's a little out of tune. Fluid links could use a good scrub, too. Come to it, some of the environmental controls have been on the blink since...well, forever. And then there's —”

“Just a minute,” I interrupted. “Haven't you got orders? To take me back to Gallifrey?”

“Not in this universe.” The sunny smile dimmed, but only for an instant. “You know, I haven't been to the Outer Spiral in donkey's ages. Might do you some good. Travel broadens the mind, you know.”

At first I couldn't speak, just stared at him. “No,” I said and heard an edge of panic in my own voice. “No fucking way.”

“You're not afraid, are you? Great tough girl like you?”

I clamped my mouth shut. Fear leads to mistakes. Mistakes lead to failure. I was not going to fail. I was going to cut off his goddamned head the first chance I had and bring it to Boss in a salad bowl, and I was not going to fail.

He got up then and went to the ship, unlocked the door. “Come on,” he said, “before the Old Thing gets a penalty for loitering.”

My left arm rose. I planted my feet, but the steady force pulling on my wrist won out. I staggered toward the ship and through the doors after him.


***


“Rule One,” he said when the doors had closed, “The power room is out of bounds. Console, too.”

He was over there now, flipping levers, twisting knobs, twirling dials. None of this seemed to present any impediment to his mouth. “Rule Two is mind your manners. That includes no guns, knives, arrows, slingshots, poisons, incendiary devices of any sort, large sticks, paper darts, or cutting remarks. Rule Two's important. Don't forget Rule Two. I'd really rather not have to knock you out again.”

I looked at his back, not more than twenty paces from me, and fantasized about ventilating it. “Question, Doc.”

“Yes?”

“Do you want to be buried in that coat?”

“I’m still breaking it in,” he said, “Ask me again in fifty years. And I answer to Doctor, not Doc.”

“Whatever you say.” My lip curled. “Doc.”

Further conversation was deferred while we dematerialized. I grabbed onto the railing that lined the ramp and hung on, wincing at the godawful racket. He had more problems than a worn stabilizer; either that rotor was warped or it was about to break out of its housing. I didn't start breathing again until the ship hit the Vortex with a lurch and began settling into a flight path.

“Rule Three,” he lectured over the subsiding din, “I'm in charge. On and off the TARDIS. Until I'm sure you've got Rule Two down, I'll handle all contact with other cultures. He turned from the console. ” Rule Four is ...” He paused. “Never mind. I'm sure there'll be a Rule Four coming. Now, how about a tour?”

My new jail-keeper led the way down the ramp, a gentle broad spiral a few stories high. It opened up to a broad corridor. A short distance down that, we came to an intersection with a second, narrower corridor. “Right takes you to the library, sickbay, and theater,” he instructed. “Also the kitchens. Left goes to the bathroom, gym, greenhouse, and so on.” He continued going straight.

The way we followed meandered aimlessly at times; other times it was arrow-straight. Mostly it was level but then all at once we’d be toiling up a slope. Never down. When I mentioned the fact, he said something about Corridor A being in a mood. After that I kept quiet. After what seemed like miles, we reached another intersection and turned right. He opened the first door we came to.

The walls were papered with pale blue flowers, the bed was a four-poster instead of a bunk and made of wood. Real wood. There were other things, too: a vanity in the same material littered with combs and brushes and bottles, a hope chest. “Hmm. This was Victoria’s room, I think.”

So I had a predecessor. Maybe the boy wasn't a homoex after all. I picked up a glass cameo on a white velvet ribbon. Saalaa, must have been a girly-girl. “Not my look,” I said, then dropped it and crushed it under my heel.

All he said was, “We’ll try next door.”

“Next door” proved to be a radical departure in style, with a wood floor and rough plastered walls. Apparently it had belonged to a boy, Jamie. I eyed the bed, a huge sheepskin thrown on the floor and piled with wool blankets in crudely-dyed plaid. “Doc, I underestimated you.”

“How so?” He was frowning at a rough wooden table, on which lay a number of objects: a rough block of flint, a crude leather bag with an animal-horn latch, and what looked like a flute. “Is that my recorder?”

“You've done abductions before. So did you work them to death? Or ...” I prodded the sheepskin with my foot. “Or work them to death?”

“It is mine,” he said, picking up the instrument. “He nicked it, that cheeky — Oh, I'm sorry, Alex, were you busy trying to insinuate something? Remember Rule Two.” He tucked the thing into his pocket, where it disappeared entirely. “Well, what about the room?”

I walked out, seething.

On the third try, he flung open the door and peered inside. “Better. You’ll like this one, I think.”

I craned my head around the jamb. It was empty. Stark white walls and floor. “Looks easy to clean.”

“Good, that's taken care of.” He rubbed his hands together briskly. “Know your way back?”

“Blindfolded,” I said disparagingly.

“When you get hungry, go back to the first junction and right. There's a foodsim about thirty meters down, maybe more, depending on how the old girl is feeling. The furniture should be along soon.”

I gave the bare room a swift look of bewilderment and then realized I was alone. “Wait a damn minute,” I snarled and went after him.

“This is going to be your home for a while,” he threw over his shoulder. “Take some time and get used to the idea. Cheers.” He turned a corner and was lost to sight.

I turned and started back for the junction, expecting to lose another hour of my life getting back there. Ten steps later I was standing in the middle of it. I risked a look over my shoulder. The corridor led straight as an arrow to the door of my new room, which I’d left ajar.

“What the hell,” I said faintly and all around me the walls, floors, everything seemed to hum. I tried to remember what Boss had told me about the older travel capsules. Empathic receptors, telepathic circuits. A more complex artificial intelligence.

But I was starving, so I took a chance and went right. I found the foodsim in an alcove. Like everything on this boat it was a museum piece. I studied the controls and then tried punching up some chow. The machine ruminated on the task for a few seconds and then spat out a little card. I picked it up and read:

WARNING: REQUEST EXCEEDS DAILY CALORIC INTAKE

RECOMMENDED FOR SUBJECT SPECIES

TERRANOID, GENDER FEMALE, HEIGHT 167.47 cm, WEIGHT 58.89 kg.

RECOMMENDED SUBSTITUTIONS:

12 oz MIXED VEGETABLE

10 oz STARCH TUBER

6 oz FRUIT

5 oz LEAN PROTEIN

1 qt MINERALIZED WATER


ACCEPT OR CANCEL ?



Accept. Right. Fix the heaters. Say please and thanks. Eat my five ounces of tofu and twelve ounces of peas ‘n carrots and drink my supplemented water without kicking up a fuss.

Ten minutes later I shut the inspection hatch on the sim and repeated my food order. This time I was granted a tray loaded with corned beef and swiss cheese on butter-soaked rye, a mound of french fries and a strawberry shake. “Accept,” I said and headed back to my cell.

The door was still open, but that was the only thing that hadn’t changed. Now I had furniture, a vanity and an enormous four-poster bed, like those in whatshername’s room, only the wood was ebony and the canopy was red chiffon. There was a Turkish carpet, thick pile, scarlet and gold. I kicked off my shoes and wriggled my toes in it. Then I wandered around for a look, munching on my reuben as I went.

Not bad for prison. The lighting was soft, not a swinging bare bulb. Interesting décor, too: a Draconian erzadd (showpiece only, the blade was as dull as a butter knife), a silk potted nightshade plant, a detailed collage of a sonic cannon done in colored pasta. My favorite had to be the painting, a still-life portrait of a p-gun done in gentle shades of charcoal. Best damn gun ever made.

“Murphy,” I said and the ship made a little droning noise that sounded suspiciously like a dirge. I glared up at the ceiling. “Come up with the macaroni art all on your own?”

The light overhead pulsed, once. Yes. Well, that was just great. At the mercy of a machine with personality defects.

I sucked down the last of the shake and then stretched out on the bed and looked up through the chiffon draped over the posts. After a while the lights got dimmer until above me there was darkness stretching as far as I could see, broken by little pinpoints of light. Simulated stars. My eyes picked out the Big Dipper, Orion. At least the constellations looked the same here.

Here. In a parallel universe. Haila, the Doc had to be the worst liar I'd ever met. Anybody else would have made up something at least marginally convincing, not try feeding me this line of mystical bullshit.

But then I remembered once, Boss telling me that he thought they might be theoretically possible. What if it wasn't a lie, and the Ring had somehow pulled me across timestreams, into a whole other universe?

No. Don't go down that road. He's lying. Has to be.

I switched gears and thought about something pleasant. Revenge. Because I was going to get it, in the end. The Doc was a fool. He should have eliminated me right off; instead he wanted to play mindgames. That kind of arrogance was all I needed. Give him the rope and he'd hang himself. I smiled at the image and then I yawned. This had been a long hard day.

The stars overhead twinkled, just like the real thing. “See you soon, Boss,” I whispered and let my eyes drift shut.


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