He should have died in seconds. Less than seconds. Multiple ribbons of distorted time, running faster and slower and backwards and around in endless loops, all of them whipping through a person's body–completely unsurvivable, for life forms and artificials alike.
He was still walking forward. He looked like he was pressing into a wind, but that was all.
I stared. The distortions just–weren't touching him. Looking at the rest of the room was like looking through warped stained glass, red-shifted or blue-shifted and bent by spacetime itself. But I could see the Doctor perfectly.
Rose had grabbed my arm, hard. I barely noticed.
A near-black whip of time, perhaps stasis or a million-year celeritation or something even more unnatural, coiled toward the Doctor. He batted at it absently with his free hand, still straining forward. It broke into pieces and was subsumed in the tumult.
Temporal distortions didn't touch him. Time couldn't touch him.
Stories about Time Lords, on the other hand–those pissed him off. Oh.
And then he was in front of the glass cone, and put both hands on the crowbar, and swung it like a baseball bat.
The storm, and our bubble, shook at the first impact. Shook harder at the second. His third blow cracked it, and a fizzing confusion of distortion obscured my view for a moment so that I barely saw the swing that broke the spike.
The light at the bottom of the spike crackled and died. So did the time storm. All of it. All at once.
The vortex manipulator stopped whirring, and I could hear things outside our bubble again–or possibly we didn't have a bubble, since there was no more need for it. The first thing I heard was splintering glass, or stuff that looked and sounded like glass. The second was the Doctor screaming wordlessly as he took another swing. And another, and another.
Rose darted forward. "Doctor! Doctor!"
He froze, but didn't turn.
"It's me," Rose said. "It's Rose. It's all right, you stopped it. It's done."
For a moment, I was flatly certain that whatever turned around wouldn't look anything like a human. The mortal act, the human shell, had slipped away, perhaps permanently. What had been done to time here was an obscenity and there would be retribution–
"It's done," Rose repeated. "It's over. We're still here."
Then the Doctor dropped the crowbar. Rose stepped forward, unhesitating, and hugged him.
Rose trusted the Doctor–the Time Lord!–implicitly. And for reasons that might not even make sense to ordinary sapients, he didn't want to hurt her.
There were two other creatures in this room with no such guarantee. I was one of them. I had nearly created a paradox, nearly destroyed the human race before it could produce me, and according to every single legend I'd ever heard, the Time Lords had horrific punishments for that, whether it was done out of malice or carelessness or both. But the Nehaluar in my arms–she, or the team of scientists she belonged to, had attacked time itself, distorted it, hurt it with a piece of alien technology that might or might not have anything to do with Time Lords.
She was dying. She would probably be dead in moments.
Except, if the stories were true, the Time Lords could work around that. Loops and locked time and other endless nightmares.
I put her down gently on the floor. The practical thing would be to stand aside. Let the Doctor do whatever he was going to do. There was no way I could stop him if he wanted to hurt her.
Putting a dying insect onto a plant so it could have a last meal. Holding hands with a conman.
I knelt beside the Nehaluar. "What's your name?"
She tried to focus on me and failed. "W-who–"
"That isn't important right now, please, tell me your name."
I stood up and stepped past her. The Doctor had turned around and was regarding me expressionlessly, his eyes hard. I wanted to run. I wanted to scream. If I was wrong about this–
Loops. Locked alive in frozen time. I didn't want to think what could happen to me if I was wrong about this.
"Her name is Quenleil," I said. My voice sounded high-pitched and choked to me. "She probably has a family. And she didn't know what it was."
Rose opened her mouth. The Doctor waved her to silence, not taking his eyes off me.
"It was an alien artifact. They probably activated it by sheer accident. And as far as they knew, testing it on another planet was adequate containment. They couldn't possibly have known what it did. They probably couldn't have imagined. They were ignorant, yes, but they didn't mean to meddle with time. They're innocent. You can't punish them." Of course he could. "Shouldn't punish them. Please don't. You didn't hurt me, and I deserve it so much more."
The Doctor paced forward. He was glaring at me the way he had done in the kitchen, only this time he was doing it deliberately, very much in charge of the effect. I thought of the legends, thought, eyes of fire. You have no idea. Figurative is so much scarier than literal. I felt as if he could strip me to the bone with that look, peel away all my pretensions and self-delusion and leave me shuddering and empty in the dark.
"Are you standing in my way?" Quiet. Very quiet. Almost gentle.
"Yes. I am."
"Captain Jack Harkness," the Doctor said, and smiled suddenly. "There you are! Now stop being an idiot and budge over, I'm not going to hurt her."
I didn't manage a response. He stepped around me while I was still recovering and knelt beside Quenliel. She turned her head slightly. I don't think she saw more than a dark blur. "L-l-lab–five–"
"Shh. Shh now." The Doctor stroked the crest on her head. I noticed that she had bluer feathers than some of the other Nehaluar we'd seen. "The planet's safe. Both planets."
"Safe as houses, and you helped. Saved the world with this." He put the crowbar in her hand, closed her fingers around it gently, and gave her the sort of broken smile that people use when they're visiting a dying friend. "You're brave and you're good, Quenliel of Nehalu. And everyone is safe now, thanks to you."
"Oh–th-that's nice." She drew a very shallow breath. "My a-arm hurts."
And then she died. The Doctor closed his eyes.
A Time Lord, I thought, whose heart breaks when lesser beings die. There wasn't a single legend about that. And I had just bet everything, ever, that it was true. I felt breathless and more than a little giddy. I felt like giggling. I suppressed it with difficulty.
The Doctor stood up. "Right. Not quite done yet. Find every file, every diagram, every piece o' paper that has anything to do with the spindle. We're gonna burn them. And if you don't know, toss it on the pile. Check for wounded as you go through, but don't do anythin' with the dead, a lot o' Nehaluar have rules about that. Don't even close their eyes; it's disrespectful. Means they were too frightened to face their enemies."
"What'll you be doing?" Rose said.
"Pickin' out any bits of the spindle that they could learn from."
Her tone changed, became gentler and more worried. "So, you have seen one before."
The Doctor had a way of going from standing still to standing stiller. "Yeah." No inflection.
"You need me to help?"
"You wouldn't know what you're lookin' for. Jack neither."
"You could tell me. I could still stay."
The Doctor looked faintly exasperated, but I thought it was an affectionate sort of impatience. "Rose Tyler. Our lad here just worked out what kind of alien I am and discovered that he actually is a hero underneath the smooth talk and shiny teeth. I give him four minutes before he starts makin' any sort of sense and six minutes before he says anythin' worth listenin' to. I want you to follow him around and see he doesn't bash into too many walls. And I will meet you outside, now go on. Get!"
"He's a Time Lord."
"Yeah, I know."
I think we actually went through several versions of that exchange. "Blimey, I didn't think anything could throw you off-balance," Rose said after a few loops. "You all right, then?"
I dumped a drawer full of papers in the sack she'd found. Nehaluar filing systems weren't that different from early twentieth century human bureaucracy. I hadn't seen any computers, which was fascinating but irrelevant. And all the paperwork was still in Englia 12.4. I still didn't know how, but I had a pretty good notion of who. "I think so," I said, experimentally, in Englia. "It's like–imagine if a dragon crashed through that wall, right there, right now. And instead of eating you, he just wants directions to the nearest tava shop. It's surreal."
"You're telling me. The first time I walked into the TARDIS, I backed right out again, with a monster after me, because it was jus' too–" Rose waved a handful of papers vaguely, unable to come up with a sufficient adjective. "But you did fine with that. You didn't look seriously rattled until he tried to stare you down. You honestly thought he was going to hurt you, di'n't you?"
She was still speaking English. As far as I could tell, she hadn't noticed that I shifted languages. I wondered if it would work for languages that weren't our native tongues. "Yeah," I said, in thirtieth century Plainspeech. "For a moment, I really did."
"These legends–they're sort of warnings, then. Don't go changing the past because if the Reapers don't get you, the Time Lords will."
"I–sort of." That wasn't all of it. It was more that I knew how the universe worked. The powers that be, whatever they are, do not care and never will. Mercy costs, but casual cruelty is free. Good people die, bad people thrive. Ogres are real and more fearsome than you can imagine, but there are no heroes. If you think you've found one, he's just running a game. Believe me, I know.
Except that I'd met one of the powers of the universe, and he was a strange, damaged, prickly man who almost cried with joy when ordinary people didn't die. Except he'd held my hand at three in the morning, the hour when all your guilt comes home to mock you, and told me to remember that I'd saved lives. Except he'd just called me a hero. Looking at it objectively, stepping in front of an angry Time Lord isn't something you'd expect a conman and a coward to do . . .
He'd been testing me. But not just for his benefit. For mine.
"The myths are all ridiculous, anyway," I said. "I probably shouldn't even talk about them."
"Not with him, no." Rose decided to take my example and dumped a whole drawer of papers into the sack. "See, thing is . . . well, a couple of things. First of all, there's one bit of your stories that's true, sort of. The Time Lords are basically extinct. He's the last."
I blinked. "How?"
"He says there was a war. He says their planet burned. If he tries to say much more than that, he jus' sort of–chokes. But every now an' then, he'll hit something that reminds him of it–you can see it in his eyes–" Rose looked haunted. "An' up till today, I was picturing it as a war fought with spaceships and guns. I didn't imagine–should've, I guess. I mean, something called the Time War, you'd expect them to have Time Weapons. An' we've seen other things that've fallen through time from the War. This spindle thing came from there, I know it."
"So it's been–kind of a bad day, then."
"I'll bully him into taking us out for chips," Rose said. "It seems to help. Don't know why, but it does."
There was a huddled group of Nehaluar survivors about twenty meters from our bonfire. Most of them were injured. Rose and I had done a bit of first aid, but the hero of that particular battlefield had been a cute young intern named Shouil, who had spent the entire crisis stuck in a lentation and hadn't even known anything was wrong until the Doctor smashed the spindle. The Nehaluar who'd written the message in the rocks had survived too, tracking the distortions by pitching pebbles into the shear and noting where they stopped.
"Is that your language," I asked, "or Nehaluar? Really, I mean."
The Doctor was writing on the wall with his sonic screwdriver. I'd seen it used as a lockpick, a lighter, and now as a concrete chisel; no screws, so far, had been screwed. I wondered why he didn't call it a sonic multitool. For a moment, I wasn't sure he was going to answer. "My language doesn't translate," he said finally. "That's Davo'or. Most common language on Nehalu. Actually looks like this." The writing didn't seem to move, but it was suddenly a collection of incomprehensible symbols, mostly made of slanting and crossing lines. I blinked and it was back to Englia. "TARDIS translation circuit goes directly through my brain." He tapped the side of his head. "Any unfamiliar language defaults to your native one unless I tell it not to. Doesn't mean I'm readin' your thoughts, so don't start gettin' paranoid."
"I trust you," I said. The Doctor turned around and raised an eyebrow at me. "Well–working on it, anyway. Trying to remember how it goes."
"You'll do fine." He turned back to his work. "Turns out it's like ridin' a bike. You never actually forget . . ." He trailed off, concentrating on an unfamiliar glyph at the bottom of the message.
The message said, This technology is forbidden.
It does not bring knowledge.
It does not bring power.
It creates catastrophe.
Make no further attempts to use it.
You will not be this lucky again.
It reminded me a little bit of the "curses" on the glass vaults of Nevada. This is not a place of honor, no treasure is buried here . . . The sort of warning you put on radioactive waste.
"Not true, really," the Doctor said after a moment. "This stuff bein' forbidden. Wasn't actually a weapon."
It certainly wasn't something that could kill Time Lords. But I was equally certain he'd seen something similar which could. Rose was right; those had been war shadows in his eyes. "What was it? What was it really meant for?"
He unbent, then leaned against the wall beside his message. "Spindles in the TARDIS are for manipulatin' space. Creatin' new rooms, collapsin' 'em when they aren't needed, or for emergency fuel. This one did the same thing for time. Lots of uses for a whole new second, 'specially if it doesn't exist for anythin' outside your little box. Had to be broken in six different ways to do what it did. Still better not to have the Nehaluar pokin' into it. Time they have the physics to use it safely, this," he rapped the concrete lightly with his knuckles, "will've long gone to dust."
I nodded and leaned back against the building myself. Over by the bonfire, one of the Nehaluar was approaching Rose. The body language painted a bizarre picture; the predator ready to bolt like a rabbit, the weaponless girl moving slowly and cautiously not to startle him. After we left, the Nehaluar would have their own legends, of upright bipeds who appeared on the wings of disaster and left stern warnings in their wake. "I'm sorry," I said.
The Doctor looked honestly surprised. "For what?"
"This morning in the kitchen. And the Chula ship. And–" I shook my head. "I don't even know. I just–maybe I acted bravely today, but yesterday and the day before–" Words don't usually desert me. "My name isn't even really Jack Harkness."
"Yes, it is."
There was something unanswerable about the way he said it. As if reality had spoken.
"Might not be the name you were born with," the Doctor went on. "But it's yours. And it feels like a good one, so I'd look after it if I were you. It'll help with the yesterdays." He was silent for a moment. "Tryin' to frighten Rose," he added after a moment, "that's something I won't let stand. But it's not what you were after this mornin'. Next time, just ask before you go babblin'."
I blinked, perspective shifting on me again. I'd thought before that the Doctor could have extraordinary power over Rose, and it was truer than I'd ever dreamed. An ordinary shopgirl from two thousand and five, nothing special–except that she looked at one of the universe's elemental forces and saw a big-eared man in a leather jacket. It wasn't the chips that helped with the memories; it was her harassing him into it. You don't tease gods. You tease friends.
He depended on her every bit as much as she needed him.
"I couldn't scare her if I wanted to," I said. "I'm not even sure you could." I didn't add, and that's saying something, but I think he heard it anyway.
"Maybe not. You're all daft, y'know. You, her. Mad apes the lot of you."
"You wouldn't have us any other way, Doc."
He smiled. "That I wouldn't."
Doctor Who and its accoutrements are the property of the BBC, and we obviously don't have any right to them. Any and all crossover characters belong to their respective creators. Alas no one makes any money from this site, and it's all done out of love for a cheap-looking sci-fi show. All fics are property of their individual authors. Archival at this site should not be taken to constitute automatic archive rights elsewhere, and authors should be contacted individually to arrange further archiving. Despite occasional claims otherwise, The Blessed St Lalla Ward is not officially recognised by the Catholic Church. Yet. |
Script for this archive provided by eFiction. Contact our archivists at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please read our Terms of Service and Submission Guidelines.