Some guys love complicated plans. Double crosses, triple crosses, the more elaborate the better. Me, I like my plans how I like my fish, simple and raw, and still wriggling. Maybe not that last part. But the point is, after all these years on the mean streets of the universe, I've seen enough elaborate schemes fall apart when the players forgot what was going on to know that straight forward is best. So when I tell you I went around looking like a clown, pretending to be a robot who was pretending to be a politician who was pretending to start a revolution, you can bet your last greasy mazuma it wasn't my idea. No, when I got shot at and molested and then forced to eat the last heir of "King Marfle", who wasn't actually a king, or even named Marfle, that was all the Doctor's fault.
"This cannot be allowed to continue," the Doctor announced. He'd been strutting around the console room for over an hour, hitting the buttons that go beep and glaring at readouts on three different screens. I hadn't been paying much attention, being mostly engrossed in the March 1987 edition of Sport Fishing, but with a coat like that he was hard to ignore.
"They absolutely positively must be stopped. How some societies make their way into the wider universe without blowing themselves up first, I'll never know." He paused for breath. I flipped a page.
"And it's always up to me to set things right. Nobody cares! The Tri-Galactic Alliance is ineffectual at best, and Gallifrey is too busy maintaining its tenuous grasp on temporal supremacy and kowtowing to the nefarious whims of the CIA. I shudder to think what would have happened if I hadn't noticed the - are you paying attention?"
"I didn't think you needed me to."
"I wasn't talking to myself, Frobisher."
"Uh huh," I said, and carefully raised an elegant (if biologically inaccurate) eyebrow. "Something terrible is happening and nobody knows how hard it is to be you. Got it."
He had the decency to look mildly chagrined. "Oh, all right. I'm not Time's Champion, and the universe wouldn't necessarily dissolve into utter chaos if I weren't around to do the cleaning up. But I can't exactly turn a blind eye, can I? And the responsibility does wear on one's soul."
"You know you love it, Doc."
"I take satisfaction, there's a difference."
The atrocity, the Doctor explained vaguely, was the trans-temporal sabotage of the royal line of a planet I'd never heard of. The historical nudging would cause a chain reaction of awful that included, but was not limited to, the unbecoming of four unique cultures, two intergalactic wars, a premature supernova, and the destruction of a quite lovely patisserie.
The solution to the atrocity, he explained even more vaguely, involved his direct intervention at the point of temporal divergence ("All of creation hinges on this single precise moment!" he exclaimed; "Fork in the road, got it," I replied), except he himself could not actually be there, due to the fact he needed to be in the TARDIS, which was acting as a sort of metaphorical plug in the metaphorical drain of the bathtub of imminent apocalypse.
I had to play the hero this time. Me, Frobisher, saving the universe. Funny, huh? I was already working on what I'd say with my last dying breath. "Find the Doctor and punch him in the face", maybe.
Of course, the Doc thinks that everyone likes what he likes, so clearly the prospect of kamikaziing my way into the history books should have made me salivate. He grasped me firmly by the shoulders and gazed deep into my eyes, his voice thick with pride and sentiment. "Yes, Frobisher, it's up to you. You shall have the great honor of, 'representing' me, if you will. I trust you've retained your talent at the humanoid form?"
"Why can't I just be a penguin? Everybody likes penguins."
"Penguins don't have a standing invite to the royal court, or the ear of the King's senior advisor, or the charm and gravitas required to handle a situation this delicate. You can't just go in all guns blazing, Frobisher, you need to be subtle."
I figured it was best not to debate the relative subtlety of shouting while dressed like a jester. Pick your battles, my dad always said. And don't pick ones you know you'll lose.
Two hours later, the Doctor had repeated my cover story to me so many times it was almost starting to make sense. He'd last been in the Great Kingdom of Marfle in the guise of John Smith, a diplomat ("Diplomat," I repeated blankly) working secretly to overthrow the monarchy, only not really ("Don't worry about that, it's not important," he said). I was to resume these roles long enough to get my foot in the door, mingle in the bicentennial gala, then locate and rescue the imprisoned heir of King Marfle, Edrich Svendrgar Marfle the IIIrd.
"Diplomat, double agent, party, kidnap a small child, check." So simple an idiot could do it. I saw my future laying before me, a future of prison cells and state executions and egregious social gaffes. I had trouble buying groceries without accidentally coming home with nothing but bales of dried pasta, how was I gonna pull this off?
Which brought us not particularly neatly to the makeover. My brain had mostly shorted out at that point, and I needed whatever juice was left to morph into the correct number of limbs. Why couldn't the Doctor be an amorphous blob? Amorphous blobs are hits at parties. Amorphous blobs don't have hair.
It could have been worse, though. I'd been him before, so I had some practice, but you couldn't find a more complicated Gallifreyan to rip off than the Doctor. All humanoids are hard to get right, but the Doctor is especially difficult, all those patterns and flair and whatever is happening on top of his head. I figured I'd focus on the face, approximate a person-shape for the body, and just borrow his clothes.
"What is this," I said, waving a piece of polka-dot fabric at him. "You do like a bow-thing, right? You do it for me, I'm no good with these arms." I stared at my hands; I'd remembered the right number of fingers this time, at least. Don't do the flipper thing, I reminded myself silently. It makes you look like you've escaped from a side show.
"It's a cravat," the Doctor huffed, "and you've gotten my chin all wrong." He whipped the polka-dot thing around my neck and twiddled it around until he was satisfied.
Whenever I shift into being him, the Doctor gets interested, like his vanity is the kind where he'd smash his face into the mirror trying to kiss himself while shaving. This time was no different: brushing imaginary lint off my lapel, prodding at my face ("Think nobility! Imagine you have great strength of character! Less brow, no, no, not that much less, what's wrong with you?"), combing my hair. It's awkward, but the Doctor can be an awkward guy in general, and I'm used to it.
You'd think the plus here would be that since I was wearing his clothes, I wouldn't have to look at an eye-bleeding rainbow party, but you'd be wrong. He was in his pyjamas, which were just as bright and mismatched as the coat. The slippers had unicorn heads on the toes, I kid you not.
"It'll do, I suppose," he said. "Now, do you remember the plan?"
"That's fine for now. If anyone figures out you're a fake, just pretend you're a robot, it'll confuse things long enough for you to make an escape. Now shoo, off you go." He pushed me through the TARDIS doors. "Good luck!"
At least he'd gotten the coordinates right. The palace loomed over me, all turrets and decorative shrubbery. I gave myself a good psych-up, then strode up the walkway to the front doors.
"GREETINGS!" said a ten-foot tall hologram of a man wearing a funny hat. I succeeded in not screaming. "I WELCOME YOU INTO MY HOME, CITIZEN SMITH."
"That's... yes," I said, then walked swiftly past it.
The party was tottering along in the main lobby. That kind of shindig really isn't my thing, too many dames wobbling drunk on high heels like confused giraffes, too many would-be entrepreneurs having impenetrable conversations, the whole atmosphere stifled and slightly desperate. What these people needed was a good brawl, or an impromptu singalong.
I got along just fine for about an hour. I schmoozed, accepted complimentary cocktails, pretended I recognized people, flirted with a secretary, then eased my way out of the party. From there I made it into the Authorized Personnel Only area and got almost thirty feet down the hallway before tripping off a security alarm.
It probably woulda gone better if I hadn't started running. My dad always said, if you want to get away with being somewhere you shouldn't, just walk purposefully and carry a clipboard. I did the opposite of those things.
After I hopped over a keycard-accessed turnstile with all the grace of a gazelle missing two legs, a squad of guards came charging out from nowhere. Some primal instinct took over in me, and I ducked down and ran like a linebacker, slamming one of them to the ground. His gun skittered away from him. I grabbed it and started shooting wildly, not really wanting to hit anyone. I ran til I lost them, then wrenched open the nearest door and slammed it behind me, tumbling into what looked like a dentist's waiting room after hours. Dimly lit, lots of maroon chairs, faintly antiseptic.
There was a laugh from the back corner. One of those low, drawn out laughs that let you know you've just stepped into a trap. I whirled around. "Who's there?"
A set of gleaming white teeth grinned from the darkness. I made out the vague shape of a man around them.
"Doc-torrr," the man said. You know how some people drag certain words out like there's a euphemism in there you don't understand? That's how he said my name. Well, the Doctor's name, though I bet he'd have done a good job with "Frobisher", too. He stepped from the shadows. His face was purpose-built for sneering and taking over the universe for the fun of it, a face where if it didn't have a little black goatee, you'd wonder where it had gone. He was dressed in black velvet, like the back room of a seedy vampire strip club. The man was bad news.
It was around here I realized I'd forgotten who or what I was supposed to be. I also had no clue who this man was, though he clearly knew the Doctor, and with a beard like that he wouldn't be an old business partner. I made my face do the Doctor's standard haughty expression, hoping that would cover my bases.
"What a remarkable copy," the man breathed. During my confusion he'd gotten so close to me I could see his eyebrows quivering. "I haven't seen a duplicate this faithful since Kamelion."
Right, a robot. I could do robot. I let my eyes go blank. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
He inhaled sharply. "Oh, you've even given it your arrogant stupidity. Marvelous, truly marvelous. Are you watching, Doctor? Do you see what this thing sees, hear what it hears, feel what it... feels?" On 'feels', he gently brushed a gloved hand over my cheek. I resisted the impulse to turn into a blender.
"Almost as good as my own creation. Using surrogates to do your dirty work, I must be...rubbing off on you."
His creation? Rubbing off on?
He slid his hands over my lapels and then slid the coat off my shoulders, which fell to the floor exactly unlike a silk negligee falling off a candle-lit blonde. "How dare you," I squeaked, but couldn't get myself to move. I finally snapped when he caressed my would-be nether regions, and ducked away from him. "I will foil your shenanigans if it's the last thing I do!" Hey, I never said I was an orator.
My inept attempt at bravura still echoing in the air, I fled, coat in hand. I took the first open door and ducked into a janitor's closet. I took out the communicator and stabbed at it with my hand until I remembered how fingers worked, and finally got it to go on. "Doc. Doc, you there?"
"Of course I'm here, where else would I be?"
"Doc," I whispered, as forcefully as I could. "There's this guy, wearing black velvet, he's got this world domination beard and he knows you-"
"The Master, it must be." He sounded pissed, but honestly, I couldn't give less of a damn.
"Doc, he touched me. I know I basically got a picture of genitals instead of actual ones since Whifferdills, well, it's complicated, but-"
"Spare me the lecture on shapeshifter sexuality, thank you."
"You didn't think this was relevant information? 'Oh, there's this man you might run into, he can't keep his hands off me so watch out for signs of imminent molestation.'"
"I don't talk like that," the Doctor said. "And it's... complicated. I didn't know the Master was involved, I promise you. This does change the game quite a bit, though. Keep to the plan, I'll do a bit of research and get back to you. Doctor out."
I needed a drink, I needed a holiday home in the Berulian Paradise, I needed some fish and an escape pod. What I had was an ugly coat, a laser gun I didn't know how to operate, and a walkie talkie. I put them on and walked out.
After what seemed like miles of corridors, I found the prize: a door with a little hand-painted sign reading Baby's Room underneath the standard stamped-metal CELL 5B NO ENTRY.
A man-shaped pile of muscle and royal guard uniform was on watch. I hid behind a decorative potted plant and counted to ten, praying to whatever god might be paying attention that there wasn't a security cam trained on me.
I gathered up the soggy remains of my courage and jumped away from the plant. The gun set to what I hoped was stun, I shot the guard until he fell over. I pushed him aside quickly and ducked into the nursery. Yeah, you're a big man, aren't you Frobisher. You can do this.
The kid stared cheerfully up at me from a pile of stuffed animals. "Blar ba," he said. I envied him. At that age, you don't know nothing but eating and sleeping and rolling around, and sticking your fingers into electronic devices. You haven't learned about the cruelty of the world yet. Haven't been forced to compromise and sell your soul and pretend to be a robot. "Enjoy it while you can, buddy," I said, and then carefully morphed myself around him.
It was a delicate procedure. I had to make sure he could still breathe, but I couldn't give myself away by walking around with a giant hole in my side. I also had to make sure not to accidentally metabolize the kid. Murder charges aside, red meat screwed me up something awful. The energy it took to stay the Doctor while remaining slightly perforated was more than I used in an average week of penguin. I stood up unsteadily and put the coat back on, hoping it would distract from the small child currently burbling and bouncing around inside me.
"Some days you're on top of the world, you got money and respect and pretty girls wanna know your name. Other days, people are shooting guns in your direction and you got a kid inside you. Life's funny, huh."
"Wawa," the kid replied, slightly muffled.
Smile child firmly ensconced, I began to wobble my way back through the maze. Three left turns later, my earpiece squawked. One of these days I'd have to remind the Doctor that being far away doesn't mean he needs to shout. "Frobisher, the king is a robot, probably the Master's handiwork. It is vitally important that you get the child to safety and return to the TARDIS as quickly as possible. No heroics, you understand?"
"I left all my heroics at the coat check, don't worry."
"Be careful." He sounded nearly concerned. I was definitely concerned. Robots give me the heebie-jeebies, and I didn't need yet another twist in the screwball comedy my life was rapidly becoming.
As if a god were, in fact, watching over me, another twist appeared. The Master, stroking his goatee, was blocking my way through the corridor.
"You again. Funny how we keep...running into each other."
"Not really funny so much as you're following me, but hey, let's run with it." The kid was starting to fidget and I was starting to wish I could sweat, if only to do something to get the nerves out.
"Perhaps you're a gift. Hmm? A plaything, a consolation prize? Maybe you just want to watch, is that it"? With each word, he stepped towards me. The man had 'ominous' down to a T. "You want to see yourself as I -"
"Oh, no. No, no, no. Nuh uh. Stop right there." I felt my accent coming back. "You are not using me as a sex toy. No way, no how. You wanna fuck him? You fuck him. Or let him fuck you, and don't tell me which one, I don't need that information, thank you very much."
"What a remarkably vulgar vocabulary you have." He tugged his gloves on tighter and sniffed.
"Vulgar? Look at me," I shouted, and twirled around. "Look at this outfit. You're put out by obscenities? Really? You want intimate relations with this but no bad words allowed?"
"It ruins the illusion," he said, almost petulantly.
"From where I'm standing, that's a good thing."
The Master carefully raised his left eyebrow. "You're not a robot."
What the hell, I figured. Using an alias would just make things more complicated and besides, the amount of time it'd take me to come up with anything decent, the Master's goatee would be a full beard before I could say 'John Smith'. "I'm a Whifferdill. Name's Frobisher."
"That accent is atrocious."
Your face is atrocious, I thought fiercely. "So."
"Mr. Frobisher." I was right, he did say my name nicely. Like a song in a foreign language you love until you find out the lyrics are about ritual revenge killings.
"Absolutely," I said, then ran away as fast as I could.
Ten minutes later, I stumbled through the TARDIS door and quickly deposited the kid beneath the console. He was a little rumpled, but seemed happy enough.
"You brought him here?" The Doctor had found real clothing, at least, a suit in the brightest blue I'd seen outside of a color chart. The guy was practically glowing.
"I figured the TARDIS could play nursery for a while. Maybe we can make a playpen in the Zero Room. Whatever. Doc-"
"Do you have any idea of the magnitude of the situation? Do you? This child is at the nexus of a-"
"-Big important time-space thing, the fabric of reality unraveling, yeah, I get it. The gig's up, Doc, we're rumbled. The Master knows I'm me. I mean, he knows I'm not you, the robot you. I had to tell him, he was gonna do unholy things to my body." I slumped down into a sandwich, focusing on getting the lettuce right to calm myself down.
The Doctor gave me a longing, conflicted look. "Don't even think about eating me," I said. "Don't even. I'm tofu. Nothing but vegetables and whole grains, no condiments, you don't want me."
"I wouldn't even if you were a slice of chocolate cake," the Doctor said, and I knew that was one of the highest compliments you could get from a guy like him.
"Such a sweetheart," I replied, tomatoes flapping.
We shared a moment. Then, reality snapping pleasantly back into place, the Doctor straightened his tie and said, "Now, let's see if I can't get us out of this mess you've landed us in."
The feeling of being a penguin again was like the first taste of a perfectly-made drink, like getting a little glimpse into a happier, gentler world. I stretched my flippers luxuriously. It almost, almost made up for having to sit through the Doctor's speech.
"...And so you see, this child cannot be the king's heir, because he was conceived after the king was dead. And furthermore-"
He looked better in his regular get-up, I had to admit. It suited him somehow. I opened and closed my beak experimentally. So much better than a mouth, with all those squidgy bits and teeth to get knocked out.
After the big reveal was over and the kid returned to his grateful, slightly confused parents (and the Doctor had preened to his heart's content at the natives' thanks and adulations), I started guiding him back to the TARDIS. Well, shoving him, actually; I figured I'd earned the right to forgo his beloved 'delicate touch'.
And, like the sad refrain of an old pop song about gang wars and lost love, the Master was blocking our exit. Of course, I told myself. What, you thought the Doctor would leave you at a nice sea-side resort while he sorted out what to do with this mug? No, this would go down now, before you've had a drink or a nap or even lunch.
"Don't think for one moment I am done with you," the Doctor spat out.
"Doctor," the Master said ominously. "And - your penguin friend," he amended, less ominously.
"I'm Frobisher, we've met, you may remember me?" I resisted the urge to slap him. Slapping was satisfying with a flipper, and doubly satisfying when the face you're flippering is as smug as the Master's.
"Did you know you're a wanted criminal on no less than 598 planets? It might actually be easier to count the cultures that don't loathe and fear you. And, if I were to drop you off at, say, Altiz III, it would be quite detrimental to your wellbeing."
"Pots and kettles, my dear Doctor."
"How dare you compare yourself to me, you-"
They lunged at each other, lips first. Oh, oh, no. I covered my eyes. Were they - yes, yes, they were. I turned, with all my dignity, far enough away from them that they were no longer in my peripheral vision, and coughed loudly. Then I coughed again, a little louder. When they ignored a fit befitting a victim of the consumption, or plague, or mid-summer hayfever (on a farm), I gave up and started walking away. Not too fast, like I was desperate, or too slow, like I didn't really want to leave, but the assured, easy pace of someone who's just got somewhere better to be, and wouldn't mind being there sooner rather than later.
"Meet you in the TARDIS," I shouted over my shoulder. "Take your time, be safe, don't do anything I wouldn't do, try not to start a war." The Doctor might have shouted back, I wasn't listening. In front of me lay the TARDIS, and inside the TARDIS was a bottle of my favorite blended whiskey and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Serenity beckoned. I followed.
And I wasn't bothered by, you know, whatever that was. I'm an understanding guy. Hey, if the Doctor wanted to take a day off so he could - whatever, with the Master, that was fine with me. As long as he waited until I'd finished the whiskey to share details. Really, there's only so much a penguin can take.
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