"So," Jack said brightly, steering them down a street cluttered with flowering trees and sleek grey kiosks, "lunch?"
Rose glanced around. A large yellow octagon by a wrought-iron lamppost seemed to be trying to catch her eye. The TARDIS sometimes found it tricky to unscramble the symbols on signs into recognizable words, but as near as she could tell they were in some kind of street. A highway. Right, the part above it was becoming clearer, it was Information Highway -- wait, another part was changing. Large highway? Big highway? Great highway?
She blinked, staring at the newly-resolved sign. Information Superhighway. Dear God, sometimes that machine was as bad as the Doctor.
Rose sighed. "Looks like this the place where they sell newspapers."
"Newspapers? C'mon. Those things went out ages ago." He grinned at her. "Funny, I keep forgetting you're a 21rst century kind of girl."
She stuck out her tongue. "And don't you forget it. Anyway, newspapers, late-breaking info, whatever. Same basic idea." Looking around, she saw light-fields projected via some sort of marble-sized black globe. Jack, doing his best Spock routine, concluded that they were miniature relay satellites that would display local and recent information for a limited amount of time, say about a day.
"Why only a day?" Rose asked. "Why not use them multiple times, like a radio or a TV or something?"
He smirked just a little. "Yup. You are so 21rst century." After she punched his arm, he gamely resumed the explanation. "You know, recreational anachronisms. People like to have an excuse to go for a little walk in the mornings, go out and pick up something before breakfast or after dinner or whatever." His stomach growled slightly. "Speaking of which . . ."
Rose picked up a metallic pink module. "How much for this one?"
The lanky, bored-looking humanoid behind the partition glanced away from his own. "Sure you want that one?"
She almost said yes, then paused. "Something wrong with it?"
The clerk yawned. "Not my place to criticize what people do with 'em. Just seemed a little off."
Rose thought for a moment. "We just want a basic informational . . . whatever."
"Oh, well, then you want the green one. Or, if you're feeling ambitious, the blue one; it's got all the InfoNet channels plus limited access to the Archives." He gave her a mildly amused look that clearly said he doubted she'd be interested.
She rose to the bait. "Right. Blue it is, and make it snappy."
"Hold on," interrupted Jack. "What does the pink one get?"
The clerk shrugged. "Porn, mostly."
Jack triumphantly placed it next to Rose's blue module. "Sold and sold!"
The Doctor left the TARDIS at a brisk pace, storming off down a seemingly quiet stretch of road with an expression so madly intense that the elderly greengrocer inadvertently punctured the fruit he'd been testing as he hurtled past. Not that the Doctor noticed, determined as he was to find and deal with the problem -- the real problem, not whatever he'd said to get rid of Jack and Rose -- before the day-trippers returned.
Already he had realized the potential awkwardness of them coming back early to find no incriminating wires or general mess or him in the middle of it, but that was just a risk he'd have to take. Rose had a key, so it wasn't as though there was a curfew.
Something deep in him growled, and it wasn't his stomach. The way they'd been walking off together, them coming back early probably wasn't an issue at all.
Sighing testily, he turned his attention to the graceless box of lashed-together electronics he had pilfered from the TARDIS's main computational grid. He didn't relish the fact that he'd have to patch it all back in once he'd found what he was looking for.
He wasn't even sure how much he wanted to find what he was looking for anyway.
Another corner, another street. Technically, he was headed in the same general direction that Rose and the Captain had gone, but he had an instinct for shortcuts and, again, he really didn't need to be seen. Speed and secrecy; the best two concepts to live by. At least according to the better singing-masters of his soul, not the old, crabbed ones with their interminable monotone voices going on and on about Duty and Privilege and Knowing One's Place --
The Doctor halted momentarily, slumping against the side of a hut until the thing that hurt in him receded to normal levels. Faintly, he registered the sounds of the street and the whirring of the cricketoids, and, though his eyesight was a bit blurry at the moment, he could see a street-vendor hawking news modules.
Pull yourself together, you soppy old delinquent. Work to do.
He straightened with a sigh, consulted his finder again. The signal was far-off but unmistakable; it was somewhere in the southwest quadrant of Alezhandria. Right.
Passing by the street-vendor, the Doctor's pace was ruthless, eyes set on his device. Had he been looking up, he would have seen the symbols on the globes' informational readouts twisting slowly into recognizable words.
Breaking: Archivist Missing Presumed Dead. Enquiry Underway.
Neither the pink or the blue globe saw much use that afternoon.
Jack and Rose wandered up and down the serenely brilliant streets of the Archival City (Jack started calling it the ArchEvil City for kicks), drinking it all in. The bright white buildings, the austere and streamlined statues, the beautiful and geometrically exact tiling -- it all seemed rather Mediterranean to Rose.
Not that she'd ever been there, she reflected, but something about the general weather and architecture and that bright blue sky just jelled with every travel brochure she'd ever hoarded as a kid in the hopes that just once her mum would take her somewhere a bit more exciting than Brighton.
Maybe the Doctor could take them to Greece next.
She didn't think about him that much during their exploration of the city. Jack sparkled and was just generally brilliant, both with her and with anyone in his immediate vicinity. It was decidedly thrilling to be on the arm of someone that all the women were surreptitiously ogling. Quite a few of the men as well, for that matter.
The long-awaited lunch didn't actually come to pass until about two and half hours after their time on the Information Superhighway. Various shopkeeps and clerks gave radically different opinions on the subject of where they should eat, and being in the shops, Jack and Rose had naturally gotten distracted. She'd picked up a few outfits that she'd ordinarily have passed on as too outrageous -- never model for Jack, she reflected -- and he'd selected some new ensembles, trying to phase out his World War II getup in favor of something 'contemporary'.
"Of course, we're time travellers," she said, still getting a delicious thrill out of the words, "so really, what's contemporary anyway?"
Jack arched an eyebrow, wineglass halfway to his lips. "Good taste is always in style."
Rose giggled and flushed at his act, though a small, vaguely Doctor-ish part of her mind muttered that Jack had obviously never been to the 1970's.
They were currently in some sort of vineyard-slash-tapas bar that smelled like a greenhouse and served wonderfully unrecognizable little meat dishes with fruity, spiced wines. Waving the credisticks around might've been a bit gauche, but it got them the best seat in the joint -- next to a waterfall, right under the canopy of leaves, inside an installation sculpture of a blown-glass forest. The waiters were good about refilling their glasses, too.
Jack leaned back in his chair, munching on what looked like a translucent fried dumpling with wings. "Best eats I've had since Pompeii. I gotta hand it to the bastard; when you travel with the Doc, you travel in style."
"It's got its advantages," Rose said coyly, glancing at him from over her glass.
He smirked a bit. "Oh, really?"
"Watch it, I'll smack you."
"Please." The smirk widened. Rose giggled again. The waiter informed them that the dessert cart would be passing, if Madame and Sir were perhaps interested? . . .
"We are not only interested, we are insatiably curious. Wheel 'er over."
Rose grinned at Jack. "Insatiable, huh?"
"Only when it comes to dessert. Honest." It was a smile, now. A nice smile.
"Shame." She bit her lip, nonchalantly glancing at the waterfall. Something about the way it swirled into itself and lapped over the sides of the crystal bowl brought to mind the time the Doctor had taken her to Woman Wept, just after her dad died. Died again, rather.
She was tearing up a bit. "Whew. Wine's a little strong."
"Lightweight." He leaned back in his chair. "Wanna call it a day?"
This surprised her. She turned to see Jack's expression, intense but somehow unreadable. "No, I think I can work it off."
The innuendo was pretty deliberate, even for her, but his expression didn't immediately change. "You think there's something weird about how he got rid of us?"
It took her a moment to get her thoughts back in order. "The Doctor? Maybe. He gets like that, sometimes." Something unpleasant slithered against her spine as she slowly remembered the look on the Doctor's face during the TARDIS's most recent fit.
He'd been staring at the screen in fear. Not the kind he seemed to reserve for the usual Random And Unsettling Malfunction, but genuine stark horror. The last time Rose had seen that expression, she'd been standing beside a Dalek.
Still, he'd acted all right when they'd landed, right? Told them about the place, painted it in glowing colors, insisted that she go off with Jack and have fun --
-- Insisted that she go off with Jack, someone he didn't actually seem to like that much and whose presence on board he seemed to regard largely as a concession to Rose after she had remarked that not everyone is content to go through life resonating concrete --
She blinked. Okay, he'd done some strangely altruistic things before, yeah: taking her back to her mother, letting her see her dad, allowing Adam on board --
Yeah, but Adam was never really competition, was he? Jack, on the other hand, now there's a born dancer -- down, girl; that's the wine thinking for you --
Still. Why would he just pack the two of them off together? Why had he been avoiding her gaze?
Why was he scared?
Her eyes slowly met Jack's. A similar train of thought had pulled into the station. He leaned forward, about to say something, when the dessert tray rattled up, resplendent in the kind of pastries that reduce diabetics to incoherent whimpers.
Rose cleared her throat. "Could we maybe get this to go?"
The day had been long and beautiful. The Doctor had hated it.
After four hours of pacing up and down the city streets, he'd gotten within 300 yards of his target, only to have the pattern fluctuate every time he'd been sure of his readings. He'd rushed back and forth and in and out of sideways and alleys and shops and private residences like a one-Time Lord sendup of a Benny Hill sketch. Even now, the locals were casting disturbed glances his way. He hadn't thought to ask them if they'd seen what he was looking for, and now it was probably a bit late for that.
Not his day for plans.
Naturally, he'd assumed that something was wrong with the tracker and had taken it apart there and then on the steps of the Temple of Odin (one of the very few religious orders the Logicians allowed on Alezhandria; anyone who plucked an eye out for knowledge was fine in their books). Staring parishoners gave him a wide berth, and the high priest and his acolytes were watching him with a sort of despairing awe from behind the statue of Yggdrasil. Wires and dials and circuits lay strewn across the marble steps, the occasional component of the TARDIS beeping indignantly at the horror of it all.
A wasted afternoon.
Now it was almost evening. The planet Thoth loomed magnificently in the darkening sky, seeming almost as though it and not Alezhandria were the moon. He started to explain to Rose that the rotation and relative position of the satellite meant that the day was usually a few hours shorter than on Earth and that the seasons tended to fluctuate owing to Alezhandria periodically passing into the planet's shadow; how for months it would be dark save for the reflected light of Thoth and its other moons, how the generators would kick in overtime to keep the settlement warm, and how the hot twilight days brimmed with shadows and intrigue, the cityscape all luminous white, and how iridescent nightbloomers choked everything with the sweet, heady smell of incense --
The Doctor sighed dejectedly, starting to patch together his worthless tracker. By now, Rose and Jack were probably getting a nice supper somewhere. Probably discussing whether or not to go back to the TARDIS. Probably deciding they could wait a while longer.
Something in him growled again. This time, it was his stomach.
Stuffing the tracker into his jacket, he mentally reviewed what he'd seen of the area over the past few hours. Eight blocks down, he remembered seeing an offbeat little noodle shop; maybe some ph? would buck him up. Yes. Hot soup and coffee, and then back to saving the whole damn world.
Five minutes later he was standing over a corpse while the robots attacked him.
Rose called the TARDIS. No one picked up.
They hadn't rushed back. Jack had reasoned that if the Doctor had been doing something drastically important, he might still at be a critical stage of fixing it and shouldn't be disturbed.
So they'd taken a cab, but made sure they'd gone the scenic route. The carriage was drawn by an obnoxiously sentient multi-eyed camel-thing who kept asking them where they were from and how long they'd been married, as well as periodically farting in their general direction.
"Like the city? Not too fond of it myself. Academia. Ivory tower sorts. Not many tourists these days. I blame the new tech, myself. Holes in heads. Obscene." His gaze momentarily flickered back to them. "Beg pardon. You got holes in your heads?"
Rose sank her fingers into Jack's arm as they nearly collided with a lamppost. "Eyes on the road!"
They finally managed to get out at the Thoroughfare of Lingering Sighs -- okay, the TARDIS could be poetic when it wanted -- and walked quietly up the hill to the alleyway they'd first arrived in. Nothing had changed, other than the pale blue flowers on the walls appearing much more vibrant, almost like they were glowing . . .
"Honey, I'm hoo-ome!" sang Jack as they shuffled inside. No reply.
Rose found her hands tightening around the take-away box. She forced herself to assess the situation logically; after all, the Doctor was probably just somewhere else in the TARDIS . . .
Despite his declared intention to fix it, the console didn't look much different than when they'd left. Granted, one whole partition had been pulled clear off, with a veritable rat's nest of wires and electrodes and toast rinds spilling out messily onto the floor, but pretty much every other Thursday it looked like that.
Maybe she was just being paranoid. Travel with only one person long enough, it probably makes their being gone seem more important than it really is.
Jack glanced at the open wiring. "Huh. This isn't the secondary control system." He bent down, face creasing. "At least, not as far as I can tell. --Geez, what a mess." He frowned at a something thin and silver woven into a strand of cables. "Hang on, is this a spoon? Doesn't he ever clean this place?"
Rose shrugged. "You think that's bad, you should see his boot closet." Imelda Marcos was probably dead in the back of it. "Anyway, where do you think he is?"
"Well," he drawled, poking at the edges of the exposed panel, "if this stuff is any indication, he's taken out some of the satellite tracking system and . . okay, I don't know what a lot of this other stuff is, but it doesn't seem like it was working badly before." He bit his lip, pensive.
She turned to the door, half-expecting the Doctor to waltz in with some random observation about the weather or agricultural subsidies or bacon sandwiches. The doors, in defiance of expectation, remained closed. "He's probably around, then."
"Hmm." Abruptly, Jack looked up, eyes glinting. "So. Rose. What were you doing in the Doctor's boot closet?"
Rose managed to smile. "Nice girls don't kiss and tell." -- Looking for boot polish.
"So, can you recommend it?" He paused, the grin fading as a thought struck him. "Hey. Does he have a bedroom or anything?"
Rose felt decidedly odd for a few moments. "I'm not actually sure."
Jack looked at her incredulously. "All this time and you don't know?"
Defensive, she set the take-out box down on the chair. "The only time or place I've ever seen him asleep is in here, and that was just the once. The rest of the time, he's always wound up and raring to go. Besides, it's not like the subject comes up much in light conversation, is it?"
His expression said otherwise, but then that was Jack. "Huh. So he isn't catching a few winks in the back of the TARDIS somewhere?"
"Not unless something's conked him on the head," she said lightly, and then wished she hadn't.
Something hit him on the head.
Stumbling, the Doctor brandished his sonic screwdriver, desperate to keep the robots at bay while trying not to tread over the unfortunate man's body. His jarred vision showed him snatches of red, strobing light; showed long telescoping arms, nasty swiveling sharp things and --
Well, that just looked like an armor-plated metal lobster --
Something hit him on the head again. Falling over seemed like a good idea.
As the Doctor sank onto the corpse -- still warm, now that was interesting -- he turned his head up into to meet a robotic gaze, all clacking titanium mandibles and electric fire.
"Listen," he panted, "You're all in very real danger, so how about -- "
The smell of blood and the world stopped again.
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