A Teaspoon And An Open Mind: A Doctor Who Fan Fiction Archive
Other Doctors
Two-Body Problem by schrodinger [Reviews - 2] Printer



When I was ten years old I stole a copy of Little Women. It didn’t make any sense. I slogged through about a third of it before Boss caught me. “A waste of time, Alexandra,” he said severely while I stood before him with my eyes on the floor. Then he gave me Sun Tzu to read. It's been years now but I can still remember:

Therefore, determine the enemy's plans and you will know which strategy will be successful and which will not; Agitate him and ascertain the pattern of his movement.

So I open the library door and gaze around with satisfaction at the books lying all over the floor with their pages creased and spines bent, at the little walnut game table cracked nearly in half, at the stuffing oozing from the chairs. Then I make my way to a sofa missing all four legs and drop myself into it with a contented sigh.

“Broke a lamp, I see,” the Doc says from his armchair, the only one left intact. The wobbly table next to him holds a cream-colored china teapot painted with yellow roses, a matching sugar bowl with the lid missing, and a coffee cup with I NEW NEW YORK printed on it. There is a thick leatherbound volume on his knee and on top of that a newspaper, folded open to the crossword section.

“You mean that pile of glass over there?”

He sticks his pencil behind his ear. Then he picks up the teapot, pours steaming liquid into the cup, spoons in two heaps from the sugar bowl. He removes the pencil from behind his ear and uses it to jot down an answer, absently stirs the tea with it and then takes a sip. Not once does he look up from the paper.

“Call it a favor,” I offer at last, annoyed at being unable to provoke him. “That had to be the ugliest lamp ever made.”

“Hm. Didn't much care for it myself. Was the Old Thing's favorite, though.”

By 'Old Thing' he means his TARDIS, the timeship from hell. It features a telepathic interface, an electrified console, and macaroni art. As demented as its driver. Maybe I won't kill him in that armchair after all. Maybe I'll just tie him to it and send him and his ship hurtling into the hottest sun I can find, isomorphic to the end.

But before that happy day arrives I have to take care of a few things. First, I need to know what he's up to. That pointless excursion to Asran to rescue a bunch of nobodies — not that it had been boring; hell, it'd almost been fun. But what did it have to do with the War? Why hadn't he taken me straight to Gallifrey, unless–

“'Ferry sees submarine rising',” he says to himself, frowning slightly.

Unless he's double-crossing his own people, in which case taking time out for the Sunday crossword is just the kind of suicidal overconfidence I don't expect. From a human maybe, but not a Time Lord.

He seems human on the surface. Average height, on the skinny side, with green eyes and rumpled brown hair, looks maybe thirty-five and is probably ten times older than that. The same could be said for the clothes he's wearing: down-at-heel jeans, a maroon sweater layered over an untucked, wrinkled white oxford shirt, kelly green Vans on his feet and on occasions like now, a pair of thick-rimmed glasses.

Besides him I know only one other Time Lord and he always wears suits: understated, perfectly tailored. When Boss comes into a room he pulls every eye his way. Elegance, power, that's what he is. The Doc on the other hand looks like he was aiming for Geek, made a last-minute swerve towards Slacker and ended up plunging off the road altogether.

He's not all crazy, though. He proved that on Asran, turning the tables on those Providence pricks at the last minute and bringing in the cavalry — a Spacefleet commander, no less. And then there's this Time Ring on my wrist, my transport-turned-traitor. He can use it to send a thousand volts through me and stop my heart just as the whim takes him. That's the other thing I have to take care of before I can finish with him.

“Submarine,” he mutters. “Rising, that means backwards. Enirambus? Ferry. To ferry somebody about, that's the same as to bus them.” The pencil scratches against the paper. “B-U-S. Right, that works. Better get on with it, hadn't you?”

It takes me a second to register that he meant that last sentence for me. “On with what?”

“Patching that lamp. You want to have it back together before she gets upset, believe me.”

“Is that so?” I drawl in challenge.

“Hm.”

The silence stretches on while I stare at him, looking for a hint of temper, frustration. Nothing. He chews at the end of his eraser, engrossed in his puzzle. “Fuck off,” I say sweetly.

He shakes his head. “That's seven letters. The clue says four. What's a four-letter word that fits with 'dust eternally after departure'?”

“Dead,” I suggest, and get up to find something better to do.


***


Sticking to principles is tough when you're hungry and out of hot water.

“Get to work, damn it,” I hiss at the foodsim, punching my order in again. It whirrs at me while I wait, shivering in a too-big bathrobe. The shower had been only slightly warmer than Lake Eerie in January, but since the alternative was living with Asran sand in my hair and everywhere else, I'd set myself to endure it. And so I had, right up until the water slowed to a trickle and the lights went out with a snap.

“I hate you,” I'd said to the darkness and felt a tickle in my mind, the Type 40 equivalent of laughter.

Now, as I stand here thinking up new and progressively more extreme ways of obliterating a travel capsule, the sim chimes at me and spits out a card. TEMPORARILY OUT OF SERVICE, it reads.

I smash the keyboard in and then suck on my knuckles as the machine sparks and smokes and dies. “There,” I growl, “How do you like that, you Jurassic piece of shit?”

All around me the air explodes with the wail of bagpipe music.

Hands clapped over my ears, I make my way to the toolroom where I find a couple of tubes of epoxy lying innocently on top of a bench. I shove them in the pocket of the robe and take myself back to the library, where the screeching pipes finally stop and where I spend half the night gluing a hundred pieces of Tiffany glass together again. At least the Doc isn't around to watch.

When I'm done, I set the lampshade back on the base and eye my handiwork. It'll never get anything at auction, that's for sure. “Now we're even,” I say to the air. Then I go back to my room, chuck off the robe and climb into bed. The lights dim gently for me.

My sleep is sound, save for a fleeting dream of a grizzled Louis Comfort in a schoolgirl's kilt, pole-dancing to "Scotland the Brave." When I wake up the next morning there is a note under the door.

There's been one every morning, a few terse lines in a neat, spidery hand: Lift doors stuck — Corridor D Level 99, or, Replace bearings — Recycler 7. Or even, Greenhouse irrigation fault, check humidity sensors (scuba gear in wardrobe).

I look at today's note through one open eye and think about just setting a match to it. Instead I slide naked out of bed to the floor and pick it up. Boss says that when I was a kid I used to be a little too curious about the wrong things. I guess I still have that problem.

Kitchen, it says. That's all.

As I tie the belt of the robe around me, I wonder whether it meant he wanted me to fix the food sim I'd cratered last night. But he had mentioned a kitchen once before, on the first day of my sentence here.

As I start to leave I catch sight of myself in the mirror. Normally it's a sight worth seeing. I'm slim and muscled but with enough curve to wear the good stuff, like vintage Alaļa (That's how I finally got those five minutes alone with the Premier of Tau. I almost felt bad shooting the poor bastard; he was so looking forward to undoing all those laces). My racial makeup includes a heavy dose of old Earth Asian and it's given me golden skin and silky straight black hair; black eyes, too, a little almond shape to them. Boss says I'm beautiful, and when has Boss ever been wrong?

Today he might take back those words. The shampoo from last night's aborted shower had dried to a crust, leaving half my hair stuck to my head and the other half standing on end. Saala, it's worse than the Doc's. No way am I going to let anyone see me like this, not even an intended target.

Maybe the ship will be a little better disposed to me now that her goddamned favorite lamp is in one piece again.

Corridor A is reasonable today, in length and gradient. When I get to the bathroom I take a deep breath, make my mind a perfect blank, and step into the shower. Water pressure, perfect. Temperature, perfect. Not once do the lights flicker. I don't push my luck by trying the ultrasound controls, just scrub the dried shampoo out of my hair and wash the rest of the sand from my body. When I get out there's a new bathrobe in my size hanging on the hook. Apparently all is forgiven.

In the wardrobe I pick out skinny jeans, strappy sandals with a wedge heel and a snug red cowgirl shirt. I wear the shirt untucked and because I'm in such a good mood I leave the top three snaps undone. Now to find the kitchen.

I go the other way down the corridor. A minute after passing the library my nostrils suddenly flare. I track the smell down a little side passage and open the door at the end. On the other side is an actual no-kidding kitchen, with ovens and stoves and a massive oak table set for two and big enough for about twenty, plus a fireplace just begging for a spitted ox.

“Come in and stay out of the way,” the Doc calls from over at the island.

For a moment I toy with the idea of refusing, but the smell overpowers me. I shut the door behind me, sit cross-legged on top of the table and eat the entire dish of bacon lying there.

He doesn't even look up. His sleeves are rolled back over the wrists; there is a knife in one hand and a rapidly growing pile of potato slices on the cutting board before him. Cooking and crosswords, mundane pastimes, human pastimes. His favorite species, so he said.

I lick the salty grease from my fingers and watch him, the pretend human, working in the kitchen with the fluid precision of long practice. He takes the laden board to the stove and dumps the contents into a large pot. There is a hiss of hot oil. He puts on some more bacon, slices up a loaf of bread, cracks eggs over a vast iron skillet, scoops coffee beans into a box grinder. Chaah, when was the last time I'd had real coffee?

“Ever been to the Eye of Orion?”

The unexpected question breaks the spell I'm under, reminding me that he isn't going to all this trouble for nothing. “Never heard of it.”

“Fantastic place.” He turns the eggs over with one hand; with the other he takes the kettle that is beginning to whistle and pours boiling water into a press pot. “You know that smell just after a rainstorm? It's always like that on the Eye. Unusually high bombardment of negative ions in the upper atmosphere. Completely uninhabited, too; nobody around for a thousand parsecs.”

"Sorry, we are talking about a vacation here? Not solitary confinement?"

He sends the bread through a conveyor toaster and seconds later takes it out again, one golden slice at a time, scraping butter over them with a flick of his wrist. “What's your idea of a holiday then? Celesta? Argolis? Blackpool?”

Slyly I say, “The Silk Worlds are always fun.”

“Silk Worlds? What have they got, clothes shops?”

I lean forward a little, giving him a better view of everything those top three snaps aren't covering. “Sex." It comes out like a purr. "Any way you want it."

He is too busy to notice my charitable gesture. “Well, it's exercise I suppose.” He sounds dubious, as if he is having to work at finding something appealing about the idea. “Not much fresh air.”

I smirk. “Oh, you can be outside. They've got a lakeside picnic package.”

“Lakes,” he says, brightening, “Fishing, now that's more like it. There's this place, Titerius, always wanted to try it...”

And there he goes. First breakfast and now small talk. Softening me up — but for what?

“... they say the trout are so hungry, they'll take anything you give them. Dry flies. Spinners. Fingers and toes. Here we are.”

A platter plonks down in front of me, loaded with six eggs over easy, a mountain of golden-fried potatoes, more thick crispy slices of bacon. A scond plate follows, bearing warm toast and a crock of orange marmalade.

“Milk and sugar?” he asks as he returns and sets steaming coffee in front of me.

I give up trying to play along. “And the bill. What do you want?”

He comes back with a little bowl and pitcher, takes the chair in front of me and pours himself a cup. “I just thought we might talk,” he answers, adding sugar with a liberal hand.

“Talk,” I say skeptically, “And then what?”

“Depends on you.”

I look narrowly at him. “Is it a hit?”

He chokes on his coffee. “Hit?”

“You want me to cancel someone? All right. Give me back Murphy and I'll do it for you.”

The Time Lord regards me, forehead as creased as the tails of his shirt. “Do you plan all your murders over breakfast? Who's Murphy?”

“The Browning-Enfield model PX608 you took from me. Finest pulse handgun ever produced. I want him back.”

“You named a gun Murphy?” Both eyebrows quirks. “What, like it was a pet spaniel?”

I smile thinly. “Beats the hell out of 'Old Thing'.”

Irritation replaces disbelief. Score one for the monkey. “How about we pick this up again,” he says shortly. "After breakfast."

I shrug. Then I pick up the first platter and set it in my lap. I scarf down the bacon, break the yolks over the potatoes and make short work of those, too, using the toast to mop up the leftover goo. For dessert I eat the marmalade right out of the jar. The Doc observes the entire proceedings without a word, horrified fascination on his face.

“Were you going to make some for yourself?” I ask, draining the last of the coffee and looking pointedly at the empty plate in front of him.

“It’s like watching a massacre,” he says in a hushed voice. “You didn't chip the platter, I hope; it's Limoges.”

I shove it to one side. Then I stretch out belly-down on the table, rest my chin in my cupped hands, and fix him in my sights. “You want to talk,” I say. “I'll go first. You've had me by this Ring for ten days now. Ten days, during which you haven't turned me over to your High Council and you haven't gotten shit out of me yourself. I don't know whether you're crazy or just incompetent. Either way, you're pissing me off.” I drop my hands, drop my voice, too. “You're not going to get to Boss through me, gandu.”

He listens with an air of polite attention, and then raises his cup and takes a thoughtful sip. “You're not really the right sort for this,” he says finally. “You're a stroppy brat, a lazy thinker, and you worship a coward who sends you to do his killing for him. About the only good thing I can say is you're strong enough for the job.”

My fingers clench tighter and tighter as he speaks. It takes every ounce of control I have not to go for his throat. “What job?”

“Mine. I'm what you might call a pro bono contractor in the planet-saving and evil-thwarting sectors. Both of which are growth industries, thanks to people like you. I'm looking for some help.”

I stare at him until I nearly believe he is serious. “Why do you give a damn about anybody else? You're a Time Lord.”

He smiles, not the sunny, unreserved smile that makes him look like a boy, but one full of shadows and years and a trace of mockery that might be self-directed. I wonder how old he is, really. “They're not the enemy, Alex. Not here.”

“Christ,” I snort in disgust and swing myself down from the table. Halfway to the door I nearly get jerked off my feet as the arm with the Ring just stops.

Gallifreyans all have some psi ability. Precognition is the one you always hear about, but they've got telepathy, too. Psychokinesis is rare and tends to be pretty weak, but with the Ring as an amplifier he is more than strong enough to hold me.

“I'm not finished yet,” he says mildly. Haila, I hate him.

“Well I am," I hurl back at him. "If you think I'm going to swallow any more of your bullshit about a parallel universe–”

“What would it take to convince you?”

I stop raging and look around. He has both hands folded together on the table, waiting. Licking dry lips, I say recklessly, “A trip. I pick the place. I drive. I prove that you're lying.”

His face is unreadable.

“No deal?” My voice is cold, sure, triumphant. “Thought so. Get yourself another girl.”

He pushes his chair back. I watch him come, hoping I get a chance to get my hands on him even once, even for a second, before the end.

He passes me, and though he doesn't so much as glance at me he is careful to stay out of reach. The unseen force tugs on my arm, pulling me along after him. We go down Corridor B to Junction A1. There he turns and goes up the long spiraling ramp, climbing until it opens into the control room.

Muted light shines from the honeycomb-shaped recesses in the walls and the translucent rose panes of the dome. In the raised center of the room stands the tall glass column of the time rotor and wrapped around its base is the console, panels backlit a hot emerald. A thin ring of the same green ripples up through the rotor with each rise and fall it makes. The console burbles as we enter and then goes back to humming and creaking.

The Doc circles it, hands jammed inside the pockets of his jeans. He has the look of a man weighing his options. I don't know why; it's obvious he's dragged me up here to put me off the ship. If I'm lucky, it will be a barren rock somewhere with just enough atmosphere to pass muster. If I'm not, he'll just open the doors and let the Vortex have me.

He slows to a stop. Then he goes over to one of the beanstalk-like support columns that anchor floor to ceiling and takes down the brown wool covert coat that is hanging from it. “Try and take it easy on the old girl,” he says to me, shrugging into it. "Can't really get spares anymore.”

Startled, I glance at the console and then back at him, looking for the trick that I know has to be there somewhere. He laughs. It has a faintly bitter flavor. “Go on,” he says, “Show me your universe. Prove me a liar.”

Turning my back on him I climb the short flight of steps to the console and reach out to touch a switch. The green light pulses at my touch, but there's no shock. Rule One has been revoked, for the moment anyway.

I clear the coordinates and pause again. I could head for one of the bases. Only I'd tried that once already with him, going to one of Boss's safe houses in London. The Time Lords must have found out about that one and done a little temporal surgery because everything about it had been different, changed. It had been like....

Like another universe.

My hands go to the navicomp and slowly, savagely stab at the keys. Numbers crawl across the display, a series Boss has forbidden me to ever use. But nobody else knows what they mean to me. Nobody can use them against me.

My fingers go faster. I activate the new coordinates, hang on through the lurch the ship makes as it changes course, and pull the demat switch. Groaning, the rotor begins to pick up speed, although I don't like the way the rings of light are flickering now. The artron converter, too — Maalaam, this junker is coming apart at the seams. A goddamn miracle it's lasted this long.

Well it can last me, too, for one more trip.

A moment later I slow us down, hard, the rotor rattling like an unbalanced washing machine. The console sparks in protest. “Suck it up,” I say under my breath and the sparking turns into a sullen smolder. I glance at the readouts. Any second now.

The rotor begins to wheeze loudly, signaling our exit from the Vortex into spacetime. It's soon joined by the grinding squeal of the relative dimensional stabilizer trying to engage. It finally does, despite the odds, and with a whump-bang! whump-bang! whump-bang! the matter interface phases in. The rotor sinks and lies still.

I look down, see my hand hovering over the door switch. All I have to do is throw it and go outside. Go back.

Take me back. That was the first thing I ever asked Boss when I was healed enough to talk again.

“Impossible,” he had said. He had a deep voice, a dark voice, beautiful and terrible as a god's.

“I want to go home,” I whispered. That was all I could do then, whisper.

When he spoke again his voice was gentler, less divine. “No one can do that, firebird. No one ever goes home again. We can't change the past.” The fine eyes flickered, lost focus. He was inches away from me and as unreachable as a star. “But we can change what we become.” And then looking down at me, what was left of me, he asked, “What would you like to become?”

I lay there, seeing fire and smoke in my mind. “Strong,” I said hoarsely.

“One minute,” I tell the Doc, watching silently from his post. “Any more than that and we'll need suits.” My hand closes on the switch and pulls. Then I turn and go through the doors without a backwards glance.

The sun is shining. Glittering in the windows of the tall building to my left and on the tops of the cars moving below–

“This the right place?” says the Time Lord behind me.

–warming the rooftop under my feet and no, it's not the right place, it can't be the right place. Except that I know those mountains sloping to the south. I know the thin white spire to my right belongs to the Universal Temple. I know that street below, winding east to a park.

A howl tries to claw its way out of my throat and I bite down on it. A trick, another trick. But how could he have known?

"Yellow sun." He bounces on his heels. "Gravity close to Earth's." Wandering past me, he squints around him at the city. "Beta-class civilization. Late thirty-fifth century, judging by those cars. Looks nice. A bit dull, maybe. What system is this?”

He hadn't known. It hadn't happened. Not here, not in this universe.

I must have made some sound then, because he glances at me and realization floods his eyes. “Calm down,” he says quickly, starting towards me. “Alex, calm down, listen–”

I back away from him automatically. That park had the best slide in the city, I remember–

"Wait, all right, just–"

–I remember running there, faster than the other kids. Faster than Murphy, he was always trying to keep up, always yelling at me to–

"Stop," the Doc shouts and the Ring around my wrist goes tight and pulls.

I hit the ground hard and lie there stunned for a second. I can't feel anything under my legs and when I lift my head and look back I see them dangling over the lip of the roof.

"Don't move." The Doc sounds furious, out of breath, and suddenly close. Hands grab me under the arms and drag me forward, a foot, another foot, and then he collapses to his knees with me. "You stupid git," he hisses in my ear, "We're thirty floors up."

He is holding me too tight. It doesn't matter. I don't care what he does with me.

"Stand up." He pulls me upright, loops one of my arms around his neck. "Walk. Come on, walk."


***


Smell penetrates the numbness first, earthy and citrus. Somebody wraps my hands around something warm and lifts it to my mouth and I taste strong candy-sweet tea. "Drink all of it," a voice says sternly, and I do.

The sugar helps. My eyes focus on the wrecked library around me. I am in his armchair, a blanket over my shoulders. He has righted a footstool and is sitting in front of me. Those lines in his forehead are back. "Slag," he says at last, "That's what you said back on Asran: the Time Lords turn homeworlds to slag." The gaze never leaves my face. "Like yours."

He drank out of this same cup yesterday. New New York. What happened to the old one?

"There must have been others. Other survivors."

"Plasma strikes." The words are thick and dull in my mouth. "I only got out because of Boss. Because of Boss."

The cup leaves my hands. It comes back full again and sweeter, if that's possible. I swallow it too fast, burning my throat. Then I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and say harshly, "Take me back."

"I can't," he says and then, "Don't break the–"

A sharp crack. I look stupidly at the pieces of mug on my lap, at the bright scarlet welling up through my fingers.

Slowly he reaches out and takes me by the wrist. He pulls apart my fist and surveys the shards buried in my palm. "Cause and effect," he says, "That's all reality is. Infinite possibility mapped to infinite outcome. Hold still."

His voice is neutral, his fingers careful, picking out the splinters as he talks. "See, the universe can't bear a mess. Things have to fit. Cart before the horse and all that. And when they don't, the universe adjusts, tweaks reality here and there so it makes sense. But sometimes there's a keystone event, causes massive ripples in spacetime, threatens causality. The universe doesn't want to see itself get unraveled, so what's it do? Simple. Forks off a copy of itself, in the hope that one of them survives. And they build a wall, a void between them, for protection from each other.

"To breach the Void, make a stable bridge into another universe, now that takes power. Cost you a sun for a two-minute trunk call alone." He fishes a crumpled white handkerchief from his pocket and uses it to wipe the blood from my palm so he can examine the cuts. "Already closing," he muses to himself, and then, "Even if you can get the power for a matter transfer, you've still got to know where you're going. That's the really tricky bit, navigating between universes. Makes getting to South Croydon look dead simple." He ties the handkerchief around my hand. "There used to be ways," he says finally, clipped syllables as if he would rather not talk about it, "but not anymore."

"The Ring," I say in a thin, thin voice. "It brought me here."

He shakes his head. "By accident. A crack opened in the wall, and you fell through. It happens." His jaw tightens again. "Take my word on it."

Sooner blood from a stone than truth from a Time Lord, the saying goes. But this one is telling the truth. I know. I've always known that you can't go home again.

The Doc is looking at me now. There's something in his eyes I haven't seen before. It's more than compassion, it's comprehension, as if he knows exactly what it is that I've lost. "I'm sorry," he says simply. Then he pushes the footstool back and leaves me alone with my new universe.


***


One of the must-haves in my line of work is a practical knowledge of anatomy. For instance, I know just where to cut a human throat so that the jugular severs neatly and quickly. A couple of times that day I come pretty close to picking up one of the jagged pieces of that mug and demonstrating it on myself.

A waste, Boss would say, like he did about Little Women. So I hang on to the wreckage of my sanity and try to wrap my head around the fact that I'll never see him again, never hear that dark silk voice again, or see the quiet pride in his eyes when he looks at me. I sit with my legs drawn up tight to my chest, my head on my knees, my eyes dry as yesterday's desert, and imagine a universe where Boss doesn't exist. And when I feel the madness coming on I shut my eyes and build him inside my head, piece by piece. Over and over again.

I bet I do this a hundred times before I realize I've gotten him wrong.

The smell, that's it. Not Boss's remembered scent of warm honey and spice but something else, the same goddamned smell that's been tugging at my memory for the past ten days. It's this chair, the Doc's armchair. It's his smell. Wrong.

My legs are shaky. I pick my way through the mess to the door and go out into the corridor. The bathroom door is in front of me in no time at all. I go into the green room with the claw-foot tub and the big vanity sink and there I pull off the handkerchief around my hand and rinse the dried blood away. The new skin is pink and shiny. In a day or two it'll be like nothing happened.

When I go back out to take the long walk to my room, I am somehow in the middle of Junction A1. A right turn and another step and I'm at A2. I look around me then, see the subdued lighting, hear the faint hum. "I don't need your fucking help," I tell the ship coldly and turn right once again.

Another step and I find myself standing at the open doorway of my room. Lying neatly folded on the bed are a pair of pajamas: shorts and camisole top in soft baby blue cotton printed all over with little pink sharks. "Cute," I sneer, but I'm worn out past resistance now. I put them on and crawl into bed and fall unconscious while the lights are still turning down.

My sleep is heavy and dreamless. In the morning there is no note.

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I stare at it for a while. Then I get up and go looking for him.

Not in the control room. Nor the library, nor the wardrobe, nor the kitchen. I turn and try the other direction. I'm about to wrench open the bathroom door when I look up the corridor and see a shaft of light coming from around the next bend. I follow it and stop at the open door. It's a gym, a big one, filled with weights, punching bags, treadmills, a rope swinging from the ceiling and dozens of other goodies. And in the center....

They stand in rank, dignified clay-colored figures that remind me of soldiers from the Terracotta Army. I walk out onto the matted floor in front of them and they turn their heads after me, automated response, waiting for the signal. I flex my hands, shift my weight to the balls of my feet. "Begin match," I say.

The closest one swings its hand down on me. I dodge easily and nail it in the side with a roundhouse kick. The body is a little spongy, but close to lifelike. It staggers back, stabilizes and then comes after me again. I duck the punch and send back one of my own into the solar plexus. Again the droid recoils; again it comes back, faster now, smoother, readjusting as it perceives I am not new at this game.

We can go on like this all day.

I meet it like a lover, one arm locking around the waist and the other gripping the shoulder, and trip the forward leg. We go down on the floor with me in the saddle. It bucks once, trying to toss me off, but I've got my heels dug into the back of its thighs and my fingers jammed into the spongy eye sockets, pulling the head back, exposing the throat. A chisel strike, real force this time, knuckles sinking halfway through the pseudoflesh. The sensors recognize a killing blow and the limbs relax.

I sit up, roll my neck and stretch, and then climb off. The rest of them are watching. Learning. The next one'll be harder, and the one after that. For the first time in days I feel a smile coming on. "Begin match," I say again, "Melee."

All of them take a step towards me.


***


There's a lot going on in my head at this moment. Position and timing, attack and counterattack–

"Don't you think five are a bit much?"

–pinpointing the location of the skeptical voice behind me. "Depends."

"On?"

"How long it takes to put them back together," I answer and nail another one in the chest with a flying knee that sends it stumbling back. An elbow strike across the head drops it like a rock and I turn to deal with the two coming up on my left flank.

"Cancel match and retire," he says, sounding amused now, and the droids immediately come to attention. The two I downed climb to their feet and join them, and then they all march in file to stand along the back wall.

I come off guard but don't turn around. "You think I can't handle them?"

"Practice droids? Wouldn't you rather have a real opponent?"

Now I have to look. He's ... oh gods. Oh gods.

"What's so funny?" When I wave at him, snickering helplessly, he looks down at the blue pinstriped trousers and long-sleeved shirt he's wearing. "This? It's what I used to practice in."

"Practice what?" I gasp. "Public humiliation?"

"Venusian aikido."

A second wave of giggling folds me in half.

"Yeah, I know. Sounds silly. My friend Liz used to call it that. Couldn't quite get her tongue around Ihlnuprehhq’li Jufxumhab Naekloreepvoctzehhk."

"I wonder why." I straighten up. "You practice in your jammies?"

"Might as well be comfortable. Are those sharks on yours?"

The smile leaves my face and I begin idly to pace a circle around him. "You really want to fight me, Sparky?"

"No," he says almost gently, "You want to fight me."

There's always a moment just before I make a kill when I know that the opportunity is as good as it's ever going to get. A cold sensation in the bones as the body settles down to business; every relevant detail of the target comes into sharp focus; the mind empties, because there's nothing to think about. Because the choice is made.

I turn my eyes down to the Ring on my wrist, run a finger over the stones. "Won't be much of a contest if you blow me up in the first round."

He looks slightly offended. "I think I can control my homicidal impulses if you can."

"A friendly match?" My orbit narrows.

"Don't know if that's the right word for it, but–"

I strike then, a side kick aimed at his knee. He springs back fast enough to turn a crippling blow into a bruising jolt and drops into a front stance, moving to face me as I keep strolling around him. "Warm up if you want," I offer graciously, "I can wait."

"No special favors." Lightly spoken, but in his eyes I see the sober acknowledgement of what he's let himself in for. I also see that he's not going to back out.

He doesn't know when to quit, Summerfield had said.

He sidesteps the front snap, stumbles as the left cross grazes his chin. I reverse the motion and drive my elbow back in his face and he throws up one arm to block and with the other he reaches out and jabs me hard in the bicep with his forefinger. I hiss in surprise and then my right fist flashes out.

Good fall, no flailing, hits the mat and rolls across his shoulders to come back up again, fluid and fairly quick. There's blood on his mouth, dark as a spot of wine against the pale skin. "How's the lip?" I taunt.

"Stings." He sounds cheerful. "How's the arm?"

"A little numb." I rub it casually, trying to make it look like it isn't hanging like a rope at my side. "It's getting better."

He doesn't blink. "Is it?"

The seconds tick by. "I've got another one, asshole," I snarl at last.

He breaks guard and comes over to me, reaching for the limp arm, and I hook my foot around his and trip him. He lands with me on his back, my good arm locked around his throat, my calves wrapped around his knees to keep him from getting his feet underneath him again. It'll be over in a few seconds, I tell myself, using my weight to push his head into the crook of my arm, squeeze, it'll be over, one way or another, just squeeze....

Most people struggle. Not him. He just reaches back and up, wrapping his arm around my hip, and then digs his thumb sharply into the small of my back. Both my legs check out abruptly. I let out a startled grunt as I lose my balance and topple sideways, still hanging on. He twists in my hold; another stab with his finger in my right bicep and it goes offline, too.

It's over, I think as we lie there on the floor in a tangle, breathing hard, It's over, why doesn't he just finish it?

He turns his head, looks into my face. There is a glitter in his eyes that hadn't been there during our fight. "Didn't think you were the type for suicide."

"Psychoanalysis for Dummies must be back in print," I sneer, too late to fool anybody.

"That was the plan, wasn't it? Get me to panic and detonate this for you?" dragging the arm out from under his head and holding the Ring right under my nose. "Would've worked a treat, I can tell you. Total disintegration: no mess, no pain — well, not after the first second or two."

"Shut up." I try heaving myself back, uselessly.

"Topping yourself, that must look good right about now. Cut off from everything you know, no friends, no home, no purpose. What else have you got?"

Between us the gunmetal-gray surface of the Ring glints dully. "Nothing." My voice is just a whisper.

"Wrong," he snaps and dumps me over onto my belly. My nose hits the mat — ow — and then I feel him pull up the back of my cami.

Well he picked a hell of a time, I think, and set myself to endure what's coming. But all he does is poke lightly at my spine with those long cool fingers, prodding between my shoulder blades, poking until I can't stand it anymore. "Hey, gandu, are you looking for someth–"

And then he pinches the everloving shit out of me.

I've been tortured by the best, so believe me when I tell you that this readily qualifies. It feels like somebody dropped my lower half into a vat of fire ants. Suddenly quadriplegia doesn't look half-bad.

"Found it," he says curtly and heaves me over onto my back again as I gasp soundlessly and thrash my newly-awoken legs. "Bear up, hard girl," taking me by my elbows, "One more to go."

The ants find my arms. "Fuck," I yelp and then grind my teeth together and squirm on the floor.

The Doc gets up, dabs at his lip with the cuff of his shirt and then reaches down and hauls me upright, keeps me there until I manage to stand on my own. The fire in his eyes has become a controlled burn. "I'll tell you what you've got," he says, "Better yet, I'll show it to you."


***


At first I think it's a secondary control room. The round shape, the hexagonal console and the metal grate floor with its wide, transparent outer ring — glass or crystal, maybe — through which you can see the steel girders below. There are the ubiquitous honeycomb walls with their softly lit centers, the supports rising to the ceiling like stalks of coral. But no outer doors, no time rotor.

I set my back against one of the pillars and watch the Doc stride barefoot over to the controls. He flicks a switch, pulls a knob, and a ball of light materializes over the center of the console and hovers there. "Your new universe," he says, and the ball shreds itself in a billion strands and weaves a hologram of a shape that defies naming. "About fourteen billion years old here, midway through the Stelliferous Era. Life springing up anywhere it can get a foothold. Chelonians," he jabs a finger into the image and it brightens, "Alpha Centaurans, Minyans, the Jar-Dak, Vardans, the Ood, Menoptra, the Hath...." He stops, considers the cloud of brightly glowing points he's just created. "All of them with their own problems."

"Is that what you do? Solve all their problems?"

"I try to help where I can."

"Because...?"

"Oh I like you," he says, shaking his head, "a proper cynic, you. Because I think it's the right thing to do, that's why."

I stare at him. He leans against the console and folds his arms over his chest. "If it makes you any happier, I also do it for the adventure and the excitement and the souvenir mugs."

The funny thing? I believe him. I really and truly do. He's just batshit-crazy enough to be telling the truth. I cross my arms, too. "And you want me to help?"

He grins his little-boy grin. "That's the idea."

"We've got a little industrial relations problem," I point out, "I hate you."

"Maybe I'll grow on you, too," he says, undeterred.

We stand there like bookends as the silence stretches on, a verbal battle of chicken that could last until one of us dies of old age. Odds are it won't be him.

"Explain to me how this works," I say at last. "You show up in your magic blue box, the peasants fall to their knees ...?”

“Oh that.” He wrinkles his nose. “Sometimes. Speeches, incense, sacrificing goats — I never know where to look, do you? But once they find out they're not dealing with a god, everyone starts to relax. Then they just toss you in the dungeon or throw you to the horda or whatever, and you can finally get something done.”

“And what sort of things do you do for them?”

“Usually? Overthrow the local tyrant, defuse the bomb, negotiate treaties, fix the hyperdrive, stop the mad computer, stabilize the wormhole, save the prince, uphold the–”

I hold up a hand to stop him.

“— laws of time if it's not too much trouble,” he finishes. “Was that too fast for you?”

“You save the day. Fine, great, then what?”

“Then I go looking for the next crisis. Usually find one in, oh, ten minutes or so. Twenty on a slow day.”

“Who runs these places for you after you're gone?”

“They run themselves, I hope. Sort of the whole point, actually." Dryly he adds, "Still too fast?”

“Let me see. Um, world goes to shit, you waltz in and do your thing, leave things in the hands of the same incompetent fucktards who started the problem in the first place, world goes right back to shit — No, I think I'm all caught up now."

He sighs. Then he pushes himself away from the console and strolls around it, looking at the model universe from all angles. "So what was the plan back home?"

"Plan?"

"After the big win against the Time Lords. What comes next? The start of a new human empire?"

"I thought you liked humans," I say in a voice like a Kartian winter and put my foot up behind me, the sole resting on the support.

"I do, I do. But you don't always play nice with others. So, what's it going to be, Earth Empire version 2.0? With slave markets on Delta Magna, selling Ood at bargain prices–"

"Boss won't let that happen."

"I thought we'd get back around to him sooner or later — All right," he says as my foot comes down with a clang, "don't get excited, I'm just asking. What's this brave new world going to be like?"

"Better," I spit out.

"Sketchy on the details," he tisks. "Representative democracy? Constitutional monarchy? Dictatorship? Am I getting warmer?"

"Somebody's got to be in charge."

"A despot with a squillion subjects? He'll have to work flat out to keep that lot under control." A pause. "Or he could just clone you, I suppose. An army of supergirls taking orders, no questions asked. Peace for our time."

"You got a problem with peace?"

The Time Lord looks at me slantwise through grass-green eyes. "Depends on how you get it."

Now that shouldn't have gotten to me. A long time ago Boss had me sit before his chair and listen while he explained what we were trying to achieve. “Most creatures have a narrow view of the universe and their place in it,” he had said, “humans especially. They live by tribal ethics that keep them at each others' throats. They never learn to look beyond themselves and their immediate needs. Even now, with their very existence threatened by the Time Lords, your Imperial Councilors squabble over petty divisions of power.

"But you and I know that unity is the only way we can win this war. Building that unity will require sacrifices. It will require us to do things that might seem wrong to others. Even to ourselves.” And then in a grave and quiet voice, “You must believe that it's worth it. You must. Else you won't be able to do what needs to be done. You'll doubt, be afraid. What do we know about fear?”

“It leads to mistakes,” I recited, as I did most days, “mistakes lead to failure."

“That's right. We can't afford to fail. There's too much at risk.” He reached out and passed his hand over my hair, smoothing it. I held perfectly still. He didn't touch me very often. "Trust," he said, "that's the center of everything we're doing. We trust each other, and so there's no fear between us." He stroked me again. "That's the sort of world we'll make."

So it shouldn't bother me, what the Doc said — shouldn't, but it does. Chaah, the man gets my back up like nobody else. "You don't get peace by holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya'. Somebody has to step up and take the wheel. Somebody stronger and smarter."

He runs a finger along the console as if checking for dust. "And if the rest don't see it that way? Silly question; I suppose you'd have to make them see."

"It's for their own good–"

"Some people might get hurt, of course, but that's what happens in war, right?" He wipes his finger on his shirttail and says, almost absently, "Happened to you."

I'd walked right into that trap. "It's not the same thing." We're both orbiting the console now opposite each other, a two-body problem. "It's not a conquest, it's–"

"For their own good, yeah, I heard. It still won't work." His voice is bright. "Not in the long run. Unquestioning obedience — humans aren't built like that. One day they'll ask themselves, 'What are we doing this for, what's life worth if we don't have a say in how we live it?' And then they'll ask you. And that'll be the beginning of the end for your utopia."

I glare furiously at him. Then my mouth curls into a sweet smile. "Maybe we ought to put one of these on everyone." And I hold up the arm wearing the Time Ring.

His face goes so quiet then I just have to laugh. "Jesus, Sparky, don't look like that. I was wrong. Your way is better. Work for you or else you'll pull the plug." He's stopped so I switch directions and circle back around until I'm a few feet away from him. I stick out my hand with a mocking smile. "What the hell, I'll be your monkey."

He looks at my hand and then takes it in both of his, and before I know what he's doing, his fingers close around the Ring and pull it over my wrist. "There," he says, turning my palm up and putting the Ring in it, "that's out of the way."

While I stand gaping at it, he picks up my other hand and shakes that one briskly. "Welcome aboard. Now listen up. I'm giving you console privileges but Rule One still holds for the power room. I don't care what you used to do with your Type 106; on this ship you don't mess about with the artron systems when I'm not around. Rule Two still holds: no killing. That's the most important one, by the way, so don't forget it. Ever. Rule Three ... well, we'll see how you get on. Any questions?"

"Why me?" My head is whirling. "Why don't you get another Time Lord?"

Suddenly it's cold where I am. Suddenly I am remembering something he said on my first day here, something heard and dismissed instantly and now .... I look at him, a slight, rumpled figure in Brooks Brothers stripes, and I feel like the ground has opened up at my feet. "You said something about a time war."

"The last Time War." His voice is still bright but there's something brittle about it now, something relentless. "We fought a race called the Daleks. Four hundred years ago."

"Gallifrey...?" I manage.

His gaze is steady, opaque. "Does it matter?"

The abyss yawns wider, the edge crumbling below my toes. I retreat. "No."

"Good," he says and smiles. It's not the sunny smile. "Take a look at that foodsim just down from A2 when you get a minute, would you? It's completely knackered."

He leaves me staring after him, clutching the Ring, more afraid than I can remember. Not of him, not exactly. It's the places he's been to. Places I've been to.

Fire and smoke.


***


It was on a Sunday.

They were showing news instead of the morning cartoons. It was all grim faces in suits talking about the coming war, the same questions, the same not-answers. Finally Mom switched it off and told me to get dressed.

My whole life had been spent in the city. That day we rented a hovercar and left it all behind, the traffic and the buildings and the huge agri-complexes. We drove through mesas and badlands painted in shades of gold and red and purple. I pressed my face to the glass and drank it all in while she explained to me how everything was like this once, before Colonization.

And then the storm came.

You don't really know what that word means when you're a kid born in an age of pinpoint weather control. It fell on us, the sky cracking along blinding-white seams (It's lightning, baby, Mom told me as I clung to her in a way I thought I'd long since outgrown), roaring, growling. And then it was gone. Afterwards I stuck my head outside the car window and breathed the air it had left behind.

I remember now. The Doc smells like that.


***


My sleep is broken by nightmares, the first I've had in eleven years. In the morning there is no note.

There's a key.

It's small, nickel silver finish, ordinary even down to the YALE stamp on the bow. There's a long chain with it, threaded through the hole. When I pick it up I feel a little tingle run through my fingers, like a circuit completing. I throw it at the wall as hard as I can and rub my hand until the sensation is gone.

My wrist feels strange without the solid, heavy weight of the Ring. It's sitting on my dresser now. I wonder what would happen if he were to change his mind and set it off right now, if that would take me out, me and the goddamned macaroni art hanging on the wall beside me. It'd be the first sane thing he's done. The first sane thing that's happened to me in this universe.

I wonder how long Boss will look for me.

No. I'm done with grieving. It doesn't do any good. It's a drain on the willpower, a waste of time. And I'm late for my new job.

I retrieve the key from the rug and run the chain between my thumb and forefinger. No need to worry about breaking it. This steel is just one of the reasons the Time Lords own most of the 'Verse back home.

Corridor A is feeling cooperative this morning. Before I know it I'm at the oak double doors. I open them a crack and there are his shoes lying on the carpet next to his chair and above them, dangling over the armrest, his foot. I don't make a sound as I come up behind him. There's a comic book open across the leg that's hooked over the armrest. Dan Dare. Haila.

A plate of cookies wobbles uncertainly on the other knee. It tips alarmingly when he takes one and somehow rights itself again in the nick of time. He dunks the cookie in the cup he's holding and eats it in two bites before sucking his fingers clean and flipping the page, and all the while I turn the chain around my fingers and stare down at the top of his head. I see that even in the general chaos of his hair there is an anarchist, a lock at the right temple that bends in a direction opposite to the rest. I see below that the angles of ear and throat, the length of the neck. All the relevant details.

Salaa, he's a trusting fool. Sitting there with his comics and cookies just like he was a goddamn ten-year-old. It'll be over before he can get his fingers between the chain and his throat.

The ice begins to fill my bones.

He picks up the plate and absently holds it out to one side. They look good. Really good. Chocolate-covered.

Without thinking, I drop one end of the chain and reach for one. Chocolate-covered. What's there to think about?

Nothing. Because the choice has been made.

I stand there watching the cookie tremble between my fingers, vaguely aware that he has returned the plate to his knee. Inside me, the ice melts in a gush. With it goes whatever was keeping me on my feet.

Sidekick to a lunatic, I think as I sink very, very slowly to the rug and sit in a huddle against the back of the armchair, staring at the cookie. Must be worse jobs out there.

Behind me, paper scrapes lightly against paper as the Doc turns another page.

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