"The woman gave me this," Rose said. "Said it was the location of the ship we're looking for." She handed the note to the Doctor, and Jack looked over his shoulder at it. It was printed with an alien script he couldn't read.
Apparently, the Doctor could. He turned and headed for the tarmac without a word.
Jack followed the Doctor out to the tarmac where rows of small private ships sat in the orange, late afternoon sun. Small, of course, was a relative term. No ship here was smaller than a house. Many of them showed signs of wear: white ships with black or green panels where damage had been repaired, gray metal boats with scorched streaks that told of chases and battles. As a kid, Jack had built models of private star ships. Walking through the yard was like a walk through a toy store. He couldn't help grinning.
It was warm on the tarmac and Jack briefly considered removing his coat. But he wanted his hands free in case he needed them.
Even as he enjoyed the scenery, absently cataloguing the ships they passed, he was alert, watching for unexpected assaults. He was used to that sort of multitasking, and had a knack for it that he suspected he'd learned during his two lost years.
Rose and the Doctor walked just a little ahead, the two of them walking in tandem as though their movements were programmed to each other, even though the Doctor's legs were longer than hers. Another reason for Jack to smile.
The Doctor stopped a moment, consulted the note that Rose had gotten from the port registrar, walked back a few steps, looked at the docking numbers painted on the tarmac, then stepped between two ships. Jack and Rose followed as he passed between the two behemoths which, from below, looking like seafaring vessels--rounded bellies drooping toward the ground--except for the thick legs of the landing gear upon which they perched. When they came out into the next aisle of ships, the Doctor turned right and walked past two more ships before stopping.
The ship before them was silver, all clean and graceful, swooping up into lines meant to slice through an atmosphere. What's not to love, Jack thought, peering up at the piercing nose of the cockpit in admiration. He could smell the retin on the air. This had to be the ship. A Xantine 9? No, a 9-A--look at the truncated curve of the wings....
"Oi!" the Doctor called. "Pay attention. We've got work to do."
Jack glanced guiltily at the Doctor, embarrassed to be caught off guard.
"So," he said when he recovered, looking back up at the Doctor, all business, "what's the plan?" He pushed his hands into his pockets and, in a nervous embarrassment, fingered the handcuffs and a stray couple of Happy Meal toys that he'd left in his coat pocket.
"The plan is that we knock on the door," the Doctor said.
"Which would be where, exactly?" Rose asked, looking up along the length of the vessel.
"This way," the Doctor said, and approached one of the landing supports, a thick slanted column with a sort of disc-shaped foot and a glossy black panel mounted at about the Doctor's shoulder height. The Doctor put his palm on the panel and removed it. A green image of his hand remained a moment and then disappeared.
"State your business," a voice of indeterminate gender said from an unseen speaker.
"I'm in the market for Vortex channels and I was told you were the one to see."
"Hold," said the voice. "Stand clear."
The Doctor stepped back. In a moment, a buzz sounded from the belly of the ship and a hatch began to lower itself. Jack and Rose moved to stand with the Doctor.
"That was a little too easy," he said quietly. Jack nodded.
When the end of the ramp settled onto the tarmac, a chubby little man came trundling down, rubbing his hands together with a guarded expression on his strangely smooth features. He was bald and wore clothes of plain cut and drab coloring.
"Welcome, welcome," he said. He held out his hand. The Doctor shook it. The man didn't offer his hand to Rose or Jack, which Jack thought a little odd but didn't pursue it. "My mistress asks that I see you to her parlor." He swept out his hand, indicating that they enter the ship.
The Doctor glanced at Jack--keep your eyes open--and then headed up the loading ramp. They emerged into a small cargo hold filled with unadorned metal containers and a couple of wooden crates. Nothing was labeled, Jack noticed. He also noticed the Doctor lift his chin as he looked around, as though sensing something, though Jack couldn't tell what.
The little man walked past them to lead them through the room and up a narrow companionway. At the top of the stairs, he walked past two hatches to a third on the right side and motioned for them to enter.
"Please make yourselves comfortable. My mistress will see you shortly," he said with an odd smile, and left as soon as he saw them move into the room.
The chamber was small with four black, deeply padded seats bolted to the floor arranged around a low table. The walls were lined with shelves stacked with books and small boxes, odd figurines and statues.
Rose immediately began to peruse the shelves. The Doctor walked to the other side of the room, leaned against the wall, and folded his arms, facing the door. Jack stationed himself halfway between the door and the Doctor.
"Are you sensing anything?" Jack asked. "Can you feel a TARDIS here?"
"No, but that doesn't mean anything. This ship isn't just a hotrod. It's got a psychic dampening field so strong that I can't feel anything, not the servant, not the host, neither of you." Rose turned to the Doctor at that comment; he looked away. Jack glanced at the Doctor and then Rose. It had been unspoken, somehow, that the Doctor might be able to hear their thoughts. Unnerving to hear it from his lips so bluntly.
"Don't worry," the Doctor went on. "It's not like I can read your minds or anything, not when I'm not touching you and trying. I can just feel your presence is all, the echoes of emotions. But I can't feel anything here." He looked dismayed and not a little angry.
They heard footsteps beyond the hatch, uneven by the sound, and the click of a cane against the deck. The Doctor stood up straight. Jack turned toward the door.
The tall, striking red head they'd seen earlier, Mischa, wearing a long, shimmering green sheath, entered the room. Upon closer examination, she was older than Jack expected, with fine lines around her mouth and eyes, and a slight looseness in her high cheeks. "How do you do? My name is Mischa. And you are?"
She held out her hand to Jack. He gave her his most winning smile and took her hand. "Captain Jack Harkness."
"Jack..." the Doctor warned.
Jack raised his hands and stepped back. "Just saying hello."
"And who is this charming young thing?" She took a step toward Rose with her hand stuck out.
Rose took it, but Jack noticed that she did so reluctantly.
"Rose Tyler," she said. "Nice to meet you." Rose's tone wasn't quite so definite, however. Something about the woman made her uncomfortable. Jack examined Mischa more closely. She did seem odd, but he couldn't figure out why.
She turned to the Doctor. "And you are...?"
"I'm the Doctor," he said.
Mischa nodded ever so slightly. "My servant Melkin tells me you're in the market for Vortex channels," she said. "They're a rare commodity since the Time War ended, treasures of a lost civilization. They cost a considerable sum."
"What do you know about the Time War?" the Doctor asked. Jack recognized the look on the Doctor's face, a barely concealed rage simmered just beneath the surface.
Mischa spread her hands, one clutching the cane, the other palm up. She smiled, not unkindly. "Only what everyone knows: that the daleks and the Time Lords destroyed each other. That region of space will be poisoned for a thousand years with all the fallout, the asteroid field, and gases. Beautiful remains of a vanished world, but deadly to any who go there."
"If it's so dangerous, where do you get your stock?"
"Here and there. The Time Lords left remnants all over space and time, if one knows where to look."
"And how do you know where to look?" the Doctor asked.
Mischa's smile changed from benign to sly. "Ah, now you're asking for trade secrets and business intelligence. I'm afraid I can't share that with you. I'll be happy to sell you anything in my stock that interests you, however."
The Doctor walked around the chairs and table to stand only a foot from the woman. They were of a height, nearly nose to nose.
"I'm going to ask you again, just once. Where are you getting the Vortex channels?"
Mischa faltered only for a moment, her smile flickering. "I . . . I have a TARDIS. It's old and damaged, probably in the war." She stepped back away from him toward the door. "It barely functions. It's just a shell, really, good for nothing more than scrap."
"Where?" the Doctor asked, nearly a whisper. Jack poised himself to jump between them if he needed to. This woman didn't realize exactly how much danger she was in. Rose stepped forward as well, ready to put a calming hand on the Doctor's arm.
Mischa glanced to one side, in the direction of the cargo hold they'd walked through. She was clearly nervous now; she knew she was in trouble. The servant was apparently elsewhere.
"In . . . in the cargo hold. Its chameleon circuit made one more transformation before it gave out."
And then Mischa's body, just for a moment, seemed to wobble, almost as though Jack were looking at it through rippled glass. She smiled nervously.
"You're losing control," the Doctor said.
"Losing control? What do you mean?" Rose asked.
Never once moving his gaze away from Mischa, the Doctor said, "Rose, Jack, you're looking at a true shape-changer, a Daridian. That's why there's a dampening field in this ship. Daridians give off a specific psychic wavelength. I couldn't feel it in the market because there were too many people around. Humans give off psychic fields, too. But anyone who comes to this ship to do business might be able to sense a Daridian, so this one's created a defense. But the psychic field isn't why they're special, oh, no. Anything they touch they can imitate. They can take infinite form--as long as the form has more-or-less the same mass as the Daridian original. I'd bet good money that she and her servant are the same creature."
"That's a bet you'd win," Mischa said. Jack wanted to wipe that smug expression off of her face.
"Doctor, she touched us all," Rose said, grave and quiet. "We took her hand. We all touched her."
"There's no undoing that now," Mischa said, and transformed before their eyes, her body rippling beneath her sheath, shrinking slightly and reforming. Suddenly Jack was looking at another Rose in Mischa's green dress, only over her body, it clung seductively around her curves and pooled at her feet as a result of her shorter stature. In any other situation, Jack would have been enthralled. Now he was repulsed. "It's a handy tool in my business." Rose's voice, emotionless and detached.
The Doctor grabbed her arm. She tried to wrench away and failed. "That face isn't yours. Change back."
Mischa smiled, and Jack winced as he instinctively responded to this imitation Rose's smile. "All these faces are mine," she said, and though her body didn't change, Jack watched in horrified fascination as her face underwent a fluid transformation from Rose's smooth-skinned prettiness to Mischa's older, angular features. From there her face morphed into Melkin's and from there into Jack's own, which made him queasy. Then Mischa's entire body rippled and reorganized until they were looking at a duplicate Doctor in a green dress. It would have been comical if it hadn't been so repugnant.
"Useful," she said.
"For a trader who deals in fakes and makes money on corpses," the Doctor answered.
"Who doesn't deal in fakes and corpses of one sort or another? No one is innocent. Especially a Time Lord who survived the Time War." The Doctor blanched but he didn't let go of her arm. Jack had an idea of the effect such a remark would have on the Doctor. "You're the only one, aren't you? Otherwise you wouldn't care so much about my TARDIS. Have you lost yours? Has it died?" She leered as she asked those last questions.
"How did you know?" Rose asked.
"When she touched us, she picked up basic genetic information," Jack said. "Of course she'd know."
Mischa smiled again, and Jack was suddenly filled with a murderous rage. "Change back. You don't have the right to wear our faces."
"But she will do," the Doctor said. "Jack. Cuffs."
Jack pulled out his cuffs and placed one on Mischa's wrist, the other on his own. "You don't go farther than 10 feet from me or you'll have an electrifying experience. To the tune of ten thousand volts." Mischa looked at him without blinking. Jack averted his gaze; it was unnerving, seeing someone else behind the Doctor's eyes.
"Now, let's go find this TARDIS."
The Doctor strode out of the room. Jack, Mischa and Rose followed.
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