The ship woke me in the morning with a startlingly good simulation of sunlight. For a moment, just before I opened my eyes, I was convinced that I was back home–really back home, on the Peninsula. Red-tailed pteris squabbling over fish. The ocean over the hill.
Just one of those unsettling tricks that a person's mind plays on them between waking and sleeping. The room's WyndO was set to an ocean theme, but it wasn't a planet I recognized–
The room's WyndO. I stopped where I was, halfway out of bed.
Dammit, I should have noticed last night. The room had a floor-to-ceiling WyndO. The bed had a built-in headrest, fully adjustable–a wonderful change from twentieth century pillows, awkward lumps of stuffed cloth that somehow always ended up on my face by the end of the night. The chair looked fifty-first century too; there was a knob on the side to adjust the softness. And the bathroom was modern. All nice and familiar.
And it shouldn't have been, not if this ship was from as far up the line as I thought it might be. Most people wouldn't believe how crude twentieth century bathrooms are; it stands to reason that in a few thousand years, everyone would think the same about ours. It should have been barely comprehensible to me.
It gave me a little bit of a chill. The Doctor hadn't given any sort of order for a room to be prepared. There weren't any other crew. Or–uncomfortable thought–if there were, they were impossibly silent and stealthy. As far as I knew, this was just a spare room that happened to be furnished. Perfectly. By purest coincidence.
Question of the day, maybe the most important question in my life right now: who were these people?
Someone knocked on my door.
Twenty-first century dress codes at a minimum. I could work with that. I called out, "Just a minute," pulled on my trousers, and answered the door shirtless, barefoot, and disheveled.
It was Rose. I saw her eyes dip, watched her run her eyes over my muscles and try to decide whether she liked what she saw or really liked what she saw, and then visibly reboot her brain. "Um. Hello. I mean, good morning."
I grinned. Yesterday there had been a few too many hellos as Rose struggled to get herself unflustered. "Good morning."
"I came to show you to breakfast," she went on gamely. "You didn't see the kitchen last night, an' it can be hard to find your way around this place. Might end up at the swimming pool, or . . . something . . ."
She might as well have put up a holosign saying and now I am picturing you in even less clothing. "And that would be terrible," I said solemnly, then flashed another smile at her. "Yeah, give me a minute to find my shirt." Needless to say, I knew exactly where my shirt was. "You can come in if you want."
"Thanks." She followed me inside. "I'll bet there're some shirts your size in–" She looked around the room. "Over there. I think. Is that s'posed to be a dresser?"
"Close enough." I went over and prodded the clother. The shirts were in the first compartment I chose. "So, you've got a twenty-first century room?"
"Sort of, yeah. 'Bout half the furniture looks antique. The wardrobe is a proper Narnia wardrobe, which–is a book they probably don't read in your time." She crossed over to the WyndO. "What's this, then? Wide-screen TV?"
"Pretty much." I put a shirt on. It fit as if it had been tailored. "They started using them during the Solar Storm Exodus–don't worry, the human race was sophisticated enough to evacuate by then." And after her reaction to me calling English a dead language, I wasn't going to mention all the weird legends surrounding Starship UK. "They're a standard feature on all starships and in most cities. Supposed to stave off claustrophobia-induced stress disorder. You should probably get one in your room."
She smiled. "Nah, the garden's jus' two doors down from me. If I start to feel cooped up, I go there."
"Garden?" I shook my head, not in denial, but a bit of incredulity. "I suppose I should expect that kind of thing from a ship named Tardis." The next compartment in the clother had shoes. Proper shoes, not nineteenth century monstrosities that'll grind your feet to bits if you don't wear socks. They felt wonderful.
Rose frowned. "What d'you mean?"
I followed her into the hall. "About the Tardis? Well, the originals were supposed to be–" And now she was looking at me like I'd sprouted a second head. "Two thousand and five. Right. TARDISes are–part of a legend, you could say."
"Yeah?" Rose looked interested. Extremely interested. The Doctor hadn't told her any of this; I could see it.
"Yeah. Nobody believes a word of it, of course. But they say–" Rose steered us down the corridor. I counted doors automatically with the back of my brain. Always know your escape route. "They say there used to be a race of–gods, for lack of a better word, who protected the universe from temporal crises of all kinds. Paradoxes, temporospatial whorls, collapse events. They were either the first intelligent race to evolve in the universe or they didn't evolve at all, just sort of–were there, since the Big Bang, one of the things that makes reality run right."
Rose was giving me the oddest look I'd gotten in a while. "What're they called, then?"
"Riiight . . ."
"I didn't come up with the name." I thought back to my early days in the Agency, the stories people told partly to see if the cadets were dumb enough to believe them, but partly because, late at night, they seem realler than the senseless equations that actually make the universe run. "Let's see. They looked human, but their eyes were either fiery or pure black with stars. Or maybe they were hyperspatial entities who wore humanoid suits because their real forms would drive people mad, or maybe they were beings of pure thought who projected a telepathic image into your brain. They were geniuses, immortals, telepaths, maybe shapeshifters, they could see a person's history at a glance or read their future in a touch. They knew the true names of all things and spoke a language that every being in the universe comprehends. Anyhow, apart from being ridiculously powerful in themselves, the Time Lords allegedly travelled through all time and space in ships called TARDISes."
We were at the kitchen, and it was–odd. A hodgepodge of different eras. There was an honest-to-goodness fireplace on one wall, currently unlit and large enough to roast something considerable on a spit. There was also a flashchiller from my own time and a stove from a little bit beyond Rose's.
The Doctor was nowhere in evidence. "He's usually here for breakfast," Rose said, when I remarked on it. "Mus' have gotten caught up in tinkering with something. He doesn't sleep much, so he spends most nights doing jiggery-pokery. Nearly exact quote."
"Not many really good no-sleep mods in my time," I said very casually. "How far in the future is he from?"
I got another odd look. "I think you'd better ask him . . . anyhow, you were telling me about these mythical," she hesitated, "Time Lords. And TARDISes."
"TARDISes were miracle ships," I said. "They were bigger on the inside, like this one; that's probably why the Doctor chose the name. They were impervious to harm. They were telepathic, just like their masters, and invisible. They could rearrange themselves at their masters' whims." Which meant, among other things, that if a lesser being somehow broke into a TARDIS, it would become an inescapable prison unless some Time Lord felt merciful. "Which is one thing this Tardis doesn't do, or it wouldn't need all those corridors."
"Well, neither of us is a Time Lord."
"Mm. True. Although I'm not sure about your friend–" Rose looked startled. "Just kidding. If he was a Time Lord, you wouldn't be here, and I'd be dead or worse. Besides, even in the stories, they're extinct." Given the powers attributed to them, I had no idea how that would even work; just one of the bits of illogic that legends are full of.
There were silberras in the stasis box. They look a little bit like grey kiwifruit (or extremely moldy eggs, if you ask someone who doesn't like them) they have purple juice that stains absolutely everything, and they're delicious. I took two. Rose had been breaking eggs into a frying pan, but she turned all the way around when I said dead or worse. "Hang on, I thought the Time Lords were s'posed to be the good guys!"
"Good for the universe. For the people in it?" I shook my head. "Even in the softer version of the legends, where they were enlightened as well as powerful, they never had much use for animals like us. Not people, in any real sense; more like archangels without a god to hold them back. What they did to individuals who caused paradoxes was bad enough. But if a race discovered time travel and had a history of instability, of making stupid choices, well, the next time you stopped by that planet, you'd find that they'd never evolved." Rose's eyes widened. "Which is, yes, impossible," I added. "We're talking about fairy tales here. And in a way, it's pretty good evidence–"
Rose was looking past me. I stopped.
"Finished?" the Doctor said, very quietly.
All the alarms in my head went straight past mauve alert to oh, shit.
His voice was absolutely level. And icily, lethally furious. When I turned around, I half-expected him to be pointing a blaster at me.
He wasn't. He had his arms folded and was trying to glare holes in me. I met his gaze and regretted it; I felt like the air had been knocked out of me, and I wasn't sure I could look away again. You should not be able to pack that much wrath into two ordinary eyes, however intense they might seem.
"Jack was telling me some fifty-first century campfire stories," Rose said, sounding unnaturally bright and chirpy. "Just silly stuff really–"
"And that's just the one he happened to choose, is it?" He looked at Rose, eyes still like blue lasers. I had no idea how she didn't flinch. "No. You went fishing, Rose Tyler."
"It's nothing–" Rose said.
"Not to me."
This time, Rose did jump. I felt all my muscles tense, and mentally calculated the distance between him and me. Four long steps. Not good.
The Doctor's throat worked as he forced his voice back under control. "Not to me," he repeated, back to cold and scathing. "Came to tell you both; there's something that keeps tuggin' at the TARDIS and I want to see what it is. If you two want to come with me, eat fast and be in the console room in fifteen minutes. If you want to play like you're safe from–"
He chopped off that sentence, turned on his heel, and stalked out. Very fast.
Rose blew out her breath.
"What," I said, "the hell was that?"
"God, he throws a worse fit than my mum." Rose turned back to her eggs. "Which sounds tote'ly wrong, so please don't tell him I said that."
I stared at her. She hadn't noticed.
All my instincts told me that the Doctor was at least as dangerous, in his own bizarre way, as a fifty-first century commando. I'd been trying to work out if I could take the Doctor down before he killed her. And all she'd seen was her best friend in a snit.
"Listen," Rose said, oblivious to my thoughts, "why don't you have these?" She indicated the eggs. "I'll get a bowl of cereal an' go on up to the console room. He shouldn't've gone off on you like that, but–" She let out her breath again. "Look, there are some subjects that he jus'–can't touch. Which is all right, really. I'm all right with it. Except I don't always know where they are, an' every once in a while I run right into them without knowing, so I was trying–" She shook her head. "I'm sorry. Shouldn't've put you in the middle of it. I'll talk to him."
I tried to eavesdrop outside of the console room, of course. The argument–whatever the hell it had been about–had convinced me that I needed information, badly. Even more badly than I had before. It didn't work, though. The doors on this ship were nearly soundproof even though they didn't look soundproof. Nothing to do but walk in and take whatever came my way.
The worst of it was, I wanted the Doctor to like me. Enigmatic, frightening, prickly, and so goofily proud of himself last night, when he explained how he saved the world with the help of an astoundingly brave street kid named Nancy and everybody lived, Jack, everybody lived! Or last night, when he came into my room to help me fight the shakes, despite the fact that he had no reason to care about me–
Almost like there was a very good man underneath the trillion-watt Keep Away signs. I don't believe in good men, of course, but if I did, I'd be pretty sure I'd found one.
Rose smiled encouragingly at me the moment I walked in. The Doctor knew I was there, but he busied himself at the console and didn't look at me for a moment. "Tua'amna," he said.
"Tua'amna?" Rose hesitated a bit on the name.
"Sister planet to Nehalu. The two of them, just about the same size, rotatin' around a common center o' gravity." The Doctor illustrated the motion with his fists. "But Tua'amna is just the tiniest bit smaller, and that makes all the difference. Nehalu's full o' life. Jungles, prairies, small seas–and people, too. Tua'amna is mostly cold desert and scrubland, nothin' more sophisticated than insectoids. The Nehaluar colonize it eventually." His voice went grim. "But before that, they use it for scientific experiments and weapons testin'."
"What, like nukes?" Rose said, and tried to look over the Doctor's shoulder at a display. "Is it radioactive out there?"
"This bit? Doesn't seem to be. Besides, radiation wouldn't have affected the TARDIS that way. We might be lookin' at somethin' a bit dangerous." The Doctor looked up at me. "You in?"
If he wanted to pretend like there hadn't been an argument, I was game. "Absolutely. I don't suppose you have a working blaster? Mine had a banana-related malfunction."
"No weapons on the TARDIS."
I blinked. "At all?"
"No." A glare.
I decided to let the subject lie. A moment later, we filed outside, the Doctor taking point.
Tua'amna was yellow. That was my first overwhelming impression. We were on a mostly-lifeless, rolling plain, all rocks and sand, which would have looked very Martian if not for the color. There was a dry, thin wind. The sky was orange around the edges and white further up. Nehalu hung halfway up the sky, about three quarters full.
There were plants, but nothing as pervasive as grass. The most common kind were dark red and had leaves that looked like suction cups. "Very–alien plant-like," Rose said. "I mean, what I used to think alien plants looked like. Before."
The Doctor wasn't interested in the plants. "Better pace yourself, Rose. Less oxygen than you're used to."
"Are we in danger?" Rose said.
He shook his head. "Bit like the Andes. Take it too fast and you'll get spots in front of your eyes. So tell me before you get dizzy, yeah? Not sure about the Captain." He looked over his shoulder at me. "I assume you know your own limits."
I nodded. Rose said, "Why would he be different?"
"Body mods," I said.
"What, like surgery?"
"Nothing major." Actually, I had a smuggler's pouch, a good one that wouldn't show the outline of anything I put in it. Pity I didn't have a holdout that fit right now. "A lot of them are just invisible, practical changes. I can't get certain vitamin deficiencies, for example. Handy if I ever end up on another long sea voyage. And, the Doctor's right; my lungs are slightly more efficient than average."
"Think I see a glint over that way," the Doctor said, pointing. "Metal or glass. Probably a research base. Let's go."
The Doctor wasn't treating this quite like a military expedition. He talked as we went. "The Nehaluar–they're birdlike, you could say. Actually descended from somethin' a little like your deinonychus, feathered pack-hunters which run down their prey. So they'll know we're aliens. Thing is, they'll be pretty used to the idea. A race doesn't grow up with somethin' like this hangin' in their sky," he motioned around us, "without investin' a lot of imagination in it. 'S not just as if Lowell had been right about Mars; more like it was there all through history, as close as the moon."
I didn't know who Lowell was; too much history for me to memorize all the significant names. I was stuck on another word. "Deinonychus. As in, more dangerous than tyrannosaurs, deinonychus." Rose looked at me, alarmed. "Think velociraptors, only bigger," I told her.
Rose stopped walking for a moment.
"And don't think of that fool movie," the Doctor said, annoyed. "Velociraptors are roadrunners with teeth. Yeah, the Nehaluar's ancestors were probably as deadly as wolves, but you'll notice I haven't taken you to meet the early members o' your family. Might not've been apex predators, but you still don't want to get a troop o' homo habilis riled. The Nehaluar are human sized, no stronger than you're used to, probably less endurance than you. And they're not monsters. They go on holiday and fall in love and write bad poetry when they're half grown. Just like you lot." He paused for a moment to step over a dried streambed. The red cup-leaf plants grew thickly along it. I wondered if there was water underground. "Can't outsprint one, though," the Doctor added.
Interesting. Very interesting, and not just for the info about the Nehaluar. Early members of your family, the Doctor had said. In other words, not Earth-descended at all.
Of course, there are plenty of humanoids in the universe, nearly indistinguishable from h. sapiens mundi until you get into non-obvious details like number of ribs or being fatally poisoned by caffeine. It's one of science's great mysteries and a favorite stomping ground for conspiracy theorists. Yes, the humanoid form is practical–versatile hands, feet that can both run and climb, brain in a nice tough container–but "close humanoids," as they're called, tend to come in the same general range of colors. The current theory (as much as a Time Agent can use those words) is that something unknown in the basic structure of the universe tends to weight the dice towards a specific pattern. But there are more disturbing ideas, some right out of the most paranoid of science fiction. I think we're property . . .
The thing is, close humanoids understand eachother well enough–at least in this galaxy–that we have trade relations and cultural exchange and brushfire wars and sex and all the other things that make people part of the same civilization. And nobody has the technology to make a ship bigger on the inside. So either the Doctor was from the far future, just as I had thought all along, or–what? From outside of explored space? From some race that had managed to keep a massive technological secret under the nose of every other sapient being? Not actually humanoid, a shapeshifter of some unknown kind?
"Doctor?" Rose said. He had bent down to examine something in the dirt.
I came up beside him and looked down. So did she.
"It looks like a caterpillar," Rose said. I thought it looked like a Halandrian fruitworm, only dun-colored.
"It's hurt," the Doctor said.
It was true. There seemed to be something wrong with the worm's back third or so. Darker and a bit shriveled, legs dragging. It was, I saw belatedly, leaving a brownish blood trail. Not long for this world, then. Even on a planet with only small arthropods, there'd be a hunting spider along soon enough.
The Doctor scooped the thing up, which made it thrash. "What's gone wrong with you, then?" he murmured. "Necrosis, looks like . . ." He turned the bug this way and that, studying it, then retraced his steps for a few feet to put the caterpillar-thing on a rare flat-leaved plant. "There you are. Poor little thing."
"What happened to it?" Rose said. She didn't seem to find the Doctor's behavior odd at all. Stopping in the middle of a possibly-dangerous hike to rescue insects, business as usual.
If I believed in good men, he'd definitely count as one.
"Doctor?" she repeated. "What happened to it?"
I noticed, as we set out again, that the Doctor was keeping us to the low-lying landscape between the hills. However nice and civilized the Nehaluar were, he didn't want us sillhouetted against the sky.
We'd been moving for about seven more minutes, over fairly rough ground, when the Doctor stopped in his tracks.
Rose evidently thought he was listening for something, because when she stopped, I could hear her trying to breathe quietly. After all the rocky terrain, it was a lost cause, but she made a good attempt. I was a bit ahead of her at this point, enough to see the Doctor in profile, and for a strange moment I thought he was sniffing for something.
There wasn't much to smell. Dust. Well, and sweat; we had been hiking hard. The air was a little too cold for comfort.
The Doctor hadn't been sweating at all, from the look of it. And he had his eyes closed, his head tilted. His expression twitched slightly as if he were remembering something.
At that moment, I could believe that he was alien. More than just from another planet, I mean–different. Strange senses, stranger thoughts, incomprehensible desires–
Then his eyes opened abruptly and he said, "Oh," in the voice of a person who's just been knifed. "Rose. Jack. I need you to–"
"No," Rose said.
The Doctor turned. "What?"
"No, we're not going back to the TARDIS. You need us here an' we're staying."
"It's not safe." The Doctor closed his eyes again for a moment. "More than not safe. It's nothin' you should ever have to see. It's–"
Rose stepped closer to him. "Doctor," she said more softly, "I told you. I'm not going anywhere."
The Doctor studied her for a moment, then looked at me. "That go for you too, Jack?"
Of course it didn't. I was an escaper, a survivor–a coward, if you wanted to be blunt about it. A scoundrel, not a knight errant. I–
I'd just said that, hadn't I?
"Unless," I added belatedly, "it looks completely unsurvivable. Then I'm throwing Rose over my shoulder and heading for the hills. No offense, Doc. You're cute, but I don't think I can carry you and run."
Which was, apparently, exactly the right thing to say. The Doctor gave me a short, sharp smile and then got out his sonic screwdriver. (Still one of the more lunatic ideas I'd heard for a while. Sonic. Screwdriver. Why?) "That's a vortex manipulator, isn't it?"
He meant my armband. "Broken one, yeah. The comm and the computer work."
"Give it here."
Only an idiot would let a mysterious, dangerous near-stranger poke at their only technological edge. So, naturally, I unstrapped the manipulator and handed it to him.
"Mad way to time travel." He turned it over and popped the back open with the sonic screwdriver. "Dangerous." The screwdriver trilled. "You want it fixed for normal use, you'll have to do it. I won't be a part of it. But it's still got a hyperspatial coil inside, however shoddy–" The screwdriver changed pitch. "There!"
"There, what?" Rose said, preempting me. The Doctor closed the back of the vortex manipulator and tossed it back to me.
I put it back on my wrist and checked the display, which wasn't telling me much. But I could feel a vibration from it now, as if the coil was powered up. It was doing something, or preparing to do something.
Perhaps I should take it off and throw it as far as I could.
Perhaps the Doctor was the only one who knew what was going on, and I should follow his lead until I knew better.
"Shieldin'," the Doctor said. "More or less." He took a deep breath. "Rose. The thing I always say, about not wanderin' off–"
"The barrage balloon was–"
"Listen to me, will you? This is important. Stay close to Jack. That vortex manipulator will shield you two from time distortions, but only within five feet or so. Get outside that, and–it won't be good." The look in his eyes said that not good meant beyond the nightmares of Dalek fighters and past the gates of Hell. "Whatever you do, whatever happens, stay close to Jack."
Rose swallowed. "What'll you be doing, then?"
"Same thing, but I'm not goin' to tell myself not to wander off, am I? That'd be daft."
Which sounded more like the normal Doctor. "Doc," I said, "what's going on?"
"Don't call me that."
Rose took hold of my hand. The Doctor took her other one, and nodded us forward.
"Doctor, what's going on?"
"I told you. Time distortions."
"How do you even know that?"
There was a pause. Then the Doctor gave me a surprised smile. "You're really as thick as you look."
It came out with a sort of wonderment to it. I can deal with insults, but I don't know how to field an insult that sounds almost as if I'm being forgiven for something.
"Never you mind," the Doctor went on. "Keep close to us, that's all. Rose's life could depend on it. Now come on."
It didn't occur to me until a few moments later that he'd given me back the vortex manipulator. He had no reason to trust me, but he put me in charge of our protection.
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