Ace had just entered the console room when the TARDIS suddenly lurched and all the lights went out.
"Professor! What just happened?"
"Quiet, Ace!" The Doctor's voice came from out of the darkness, followed by the thunk of his fist hitting the console. At least, that's what Ace assumed it was. She'd heard it often enough, since it seemed to be his first response to any problem the rackety old time machine had. And it worked more often than it had any right to, too. The lights flickered a couple of times and came back on.
The Doctor smiled. "There. That's all right!" He polished the console with his sleeve, possibly as some sort of apology for having thwacked it.
"All right? What was that?"
"Oh," he said in an airy tone of voice she'd long since learned not to trust. "We just hit a bump."
"A bump? We're in the Vortex!"
"Yes, well, even the Temporal Vortex has topography, you know. Lumps, bumps, bits of debris... Very rare, but not unheard of."
"So, is the TARDIS all right, then?"
"Oh, yes, yes. Everything should be fine now."
The lights went out again. "Don't say it," came a voice from the dark.
"I wasn't going to say anything," said Ace. But she couldn't quite keep the giggle out of her voice.
"I think," said the Doctor, "That perhaps we ought to land."
"How long did you say that crystal whatever thingy was going to take to auto-regenerate?"
"Crystal-fibroid temporal-stabilization initializer circuit. And it shouldn't be long. A few days at the most."
"At most." The Doctor waved a hand dismissively. It was barely visible in the dim glow he'd managed to produce by repeated console-thunkings.
"Right. So, where are we?"
The Time Lord grinned. "I have no idea. We could be anywhere. Past, future... Even sideways."
"Sideways? What, you mean, like an alternative universe?"
"Mmm. Tricky things, Vortex bumps. Shall we go outside and see?"
"Might as well." Ace smiled back at him. "Hope it's somewhere nice, if we're going to be stuck here for days."
"No, you don't. I know you. You hope it's somewhere exciting."
"Oh, like you don't!" She gave him a cheeky grin, threw open the console doors, and stepped out.
"Well?" came the Doctor's voice from inside the TARDIS.
Ace looked around. "Hmm. It's very... big. Interesting architecture." She walked forward a little, craning her head around to take in the massive ribbed walls that enclosed them. "Lots of boxes or something." She opened one. It was full of smaller boxes labeled in a script she couldn't read. She turned back to look at the TARDIS just as the Doctor emerged. "Are we inside a spaceship?"
He flashed her that small, satisfied smile he got whenever she'd figured something out correctly. "Yes, I believe we are." He peered inside the container she'd opened, then strode over to one of the walls and laid a hand against it. "Well, well. A living ship."
She trailed after him. "Living? What, like... We're inside an animal?" She made a yecch noise.
"Oh, an animal specifically engineered for humanoid habitation, I'd say. Nothing to 'yecch' about, as long as it's happy."
"Mmm, yes. Such creatures are usually happiest when they have a function to fulfill." He straightened up. "I haven't seen anyone about, have you?"
Ace had just started to shake her head no, when a voice suddenly came from what seemed to be all around them. "Intruders! Stay where you are, or my DRDs will shoot you!"
Ace's brow furrowed as they turned away from the wall. "DR-whats?"
The Doctor tapped her arm with his umbrella, then used it to point downwards. Her gaze followed. On the floor, surrounding them in an effective semicircle, were dozens of little yellow robots. Under other circumstances, Ace thought, they might have been sort of cute. The weapons barrel each one had aimed directly at them, however, did a lot to dispel that impression.
The Doctor smiled and raised his hands. Ace slowly followed suit.
"Hello!" he said. "Take us to your leader!"
Their "leader" turned out to be some kind of giant four-armed crab creature. Despite herself, Ace found herself shrinking back a bit, wanting to keep the Doctor between her and its ugly-looking claws.
The Doctor, annoyingly, noticed. "It's all right, Ace. He can't reach you from there, and he can't get up. He's transfixed in place. A highly interesting symbiotic relationship. Is your neural system wired directly into the ship?"
The creature blinked. "Yes, it is. I--" Suddenly it stopped, its eyelids lowering menacingly. "I mean, no! I could easily get up and hurt you, very badly, so you ought to answer our questions."
Ace tried not to laugh, but it was no good. This crab-guy reminded her too much of her old English teacher, Mr. McNally. He'd always tried to come off as a hardnose, like he fancied himself an old-school disciplinarian, but he had such a kind face and a non-threatening voice nobody ever took him seriously. Everybody'd liked him, though, so they'd tended to keep the mayhem down at the level of spitballs. "We're quavering," she said dryly, discreetly stepping out from behind the Doctor again.
"Now, Ace. Be polite!" The Doctor smiled and approached the creature. "I'm the Doctor, and this is my friend Ace. How do you do?" He raised his hat briefly, then stepped towards the console the creature was sitting at. Or possibly bolted to. The little robots zipped forward as he reached out a hand, taking aim at him, but he merely touched the console gently. "Tell me, what's the name of your friend here? She's a beautiful ship, what we've seen of her."
"What?" The poor creature looked awfully confused. Ace almost felt sorry for him. But then, a lot of people had that problem with the Doctor. "Uh, Moya. Her name is Moya."
The Doctor nodded. "Hello, Moya." He stroked his hand gently along the organic material, tilted his head a little, as if listening for an answer, then beamed as if he'd just got one, and liked it.
The creature's eyes were wide, and his massive claws moved in agitated little gestures. "What, how did you--?"
The Doctor removed his hand, smiling, Ace thought, rather smugly now. "Pilot." He said it like it was a name. "As I said, I'm the Doctor, this is my friend Ace, and I assure you, we're no danger to you. We're simply travelers, arrived by accident, and soon enough to be on our way. I'd imagine you might be glad of passengers. You haven't a crew at the moment, have you?"
"No. We did have, but they're all... busy. Raising families, ruling planets, fighting revolutions..."
"Noble occupations, all," said the Doctor, "if done nobly." He paused and tapped the umbrella's handle against his chin thoughtfully. "Revolutions, you say? You know, from the glimpse I got of your cargo, it looked as if you're quite equipped for a revolution, yourselves."
"Well, we were going to--" Pilot -- assuming that's what he was called -- broke off again and regarded them with a suspicious look. "You're not Peacekeepers?"
"I like to think of myself as a peacemaker," said the Doctor. "But somehow I don't think that's what you mean."
"You look like Sebaceans," Pilot said accusingly.
Ace decided to jump in. "Do we act like Seb... Seb..."
"Sebaceans," said the Doctor.
"Yeah. Do we act like them? Huh?" Of course, she was only guessing that they didn't but it seemed like a pretty good bet, because, item one, these Sebaceans were probably the bad guys, and, in Ace's experience, bad guys tended not to stand around having pleasant chats, and item two, the Doctor didn't act like anybody.
"No," said Pilot doubtfully. "But you could be undercover agents."
"Yes," said the Doctor. "But."
"But!" The word was almost triumphant. He stabbed a finger in Pilot's direction. "You don't believe I'm a Peacekeeper agent, do you? Not really. In fact, you believe I have an uncommonly honest face and feel strangely inclined to find me trustworthy. Right?"
"And you're an excellent judge of character, yes? Of course you are. I can tell."
"Well, yes, normally I--"
"So." The Doctor grinned. "There you go. Now, about this revolution..."
The Doctor and Pilot -- what was it about people who used occupations as names? -- proceeded to have a very long and boring conversation, at least from Ace's point of view. Pilot and the ship had used to travel with a bunch of friends, they said, but the friends had all got lives or something and left. Some friends, Ace thought. Weren't mates supposed to stick together? Anyway, Pilot and Moya'd gone off exploring, but hadn't found it as much fun as they'd thought, without anyone to share it with, so they'd come back -- back where, she wasn't entirely sure -- had somehow run across one of said old friends, who was fighting these Peacekeeper people -- yet another batch of Evil Space Nazis, she figured -- and had agreed to run supplies for the rebels.
All of which was interesting enough, but then the two of them started getting into a long discussion about local politics, then an enthusiastic comparison of various nebulas they'd visited, followed by some kind of game involving who could do the biggest maths equations in their head, and it was all Ace could do to keep her eyes open.
"Look," she said, "I'm glad you two are such great pals now, but this is boring me to death. I'm gonna go look around the ship, OK?"
They both sort of nodded distractedly, and Ace took off before either of their two giant alien brains could process what she'd said and come up with a reason for her not to go.
Blimey, this was a huge ship. Not as huge as the TARDIS, probably, but she doubted it was bigger on the inside than the outside, so it must be the size of a whale. Strange thought, being inside a giant space whale. There were corridors that went on and on, massive open spaces, living quarters that seemed to be empty, and, strangely, an entire section that looked like it had been burned out and abandoned.
She wandered back down to the cargo bay they'd materialized in and browsed through the crates. Lots of medical supplies, some stuff that she was pretty sure was food, a few guns, and... Hang on, were those explosives? She was pretty sure they were, so she slipped a couple of packs into her rucksack. You never knew when you might want something with a bit more kick than nitro and, whoever these rebels were, they probably had more than they really needed, anyway.
She'd just exited a huge room that had turned out to be some kind of shuttle hangar when the door started vibrating behind her. She could hear a rushing sound. Air being evacuated? Then, a minute later, another rushing sound... and an unmistakable engine noise.
"A ship!" she cried, startling one of the little robots that seemed to be everywhere. "There's a ship landing!"
A moment later, the door opened.
Stark wanted to sleep, wanted to cry, wanted to curl up into a dark place deep inside himself and fill his world with chanting, the way he once would have done. But whatever had happened to him, whatever role he now played, he was still Stykera. And didn't a Stykera's duty come when the end was inevitable? His people would need the supplies Moya was bringing, now more than ever. Not the weapons, perhaps, but the medical supplies, for certain. So he wiped the grime from his face and the moisture from his functional eye, and concentrated on bringing the transport pod into dock, telling himself that, whatever happened, he would fulfill his duty to his people at the end, giving them what comfort he could in their defeat, as he would give it to a dying soul.
He was so wrapped up in these melancholy thoughts as he exited the docking bay that he almost bumped into the stranger before he saw her. He let out a gasp of surprise, fumbling for his weapon, and the woman jumped back, making a startled sound of her own. "Hey, don't shoot! I'm friendly, honest!"
Stark stopped short, his hand still tightening on the grip of the pulse pistol, as her words penetrated his mind. And not just her words... He realized, with a sudden sense of shock, that, beneath the meaning conveyed to him by the translator microbes, she was speaking John Crichton's language. English. He compared it quickly with the echoes in his mind, and found himself in no doubt. "You're... you're human?"
"Yeah, that's right. Friendly human." She gave him a big smile to illustrate this and looked him carefully up and down. He tried to imagine how he must look to her: a tired, grimy Banik with an itchy trigger finger and a mass of scar tissue across half his face. "You're one of Pilot's rebels, then?"
His hand eased off the gun. He had no particular reason to trust her simply because she was one of Crichton's people, but if Pilot had accepted her...
He nodded. "Stark." It came out in a rasp, and he cleared his throat and tried again. "I'm Stark. And I'm only a rebel a little longer. Only until I go back and offer the Peacekeepers our surrender. We've lost."
She stood there looking at him for a long moment, then flashed him a huge, incongruous smile. "Mate," she said, "This may be your lucky day! I'm gonna introduce you to the Doctor." She put an arm around Stark's shoulder and added, conspiratorially, "He's really good with lost causes."
Stark just blinked, trying to fight down a completely irrational surge of hope.
Pilot was deep in conversation with a smallish, dark-haired man when they arrived at the den. Stark had no idea what he was saying, though, because the fantastically complex words of the Pilot language were flying by far too fast for translator microbes to manage. The stranger seemed to have no difficulty with it, though, nodding along as if he understood every word.
"Oi, Doctor!" called out the woman -- who, Stark had learned on the way up was called Ace. "I've found a rebel for you! I think his planet needs saving." She sounded strangely smug.
Both beings turned to look at them. Pilot started to say something, realized he was still speaking far too quickly, and started over. "Stark, this is--"
"I'm the Doctor," said the man. "Pleased to meet you." He smiled a mild, polite, blandly friendly smile, but something dark and strange and subtle glinted in his eyes. Stark found himself staring into those eyes, falling into them. He could see time, death, birth, a bright tangled aura... and something else, something he could almost touch if he tried...
"Yes," said the Doctor's voice in his ear, full of some obscure meaning. Stark blinked, returning to himself, unsure how the Doctor had got from where he'd been standing to his current position at Stark's elbow, or what Stark himself had been reaching toward, or exactly what his Stykera senses had glimpsed. Sheepishly, he returned his reaching hand to his side and shook his head to clear it.
"Yes," said the Doctor again, his manner abruptly changing to boisterous friendliness. "I'm the Doctor, this is Ace, Pilot you know." He thrust the point of something that Stark thought might have been an oddly shaped umbrella in Pilot's direction. "And you need help." The tip of the probably-an-umbrella came to rest against Pilot's console, and the Doctor folded his hands around the handle, leaned forward, and rested his chin atop them. "Now. Tell me all about it."
The memory of that strange dark brightness still flickering in his mind, Stark did.
When they brought the dying man to Stark, his only thought, to his later shame, was a desire to see him quickly to his peace so that he could get some rest of his own.
He had been in the hills for ten days, moving from one group of fighters to another. They seemed to fight better with him there, even if he never fired a gun. Which he seldom did, either because he was deemed too valuable to risk or too unreliable with a weapon. It was only to be expected, of course, that Baniks would fight more willingly if they knew there would be a Stykera to give them the Death Rites should they fall, and comfort their souls at the end. But, to Stark's chagrin, that seemed to be the least of their reasons. His people had come to look on him as a kind of figurehead: the bringer of peace, the companion of the legendary John Crichton, the Stykera who had been touched by the transcendent spirit of the Eidolons. The Banik who proved -- to Baniks if to no one else -- that a Banik could play a role in history, a role other than that of slave. They even gave him credit, despite his protestations, for the weakening of the Scarran Empire, which had given the Baniks under Scarran rule the chance for freedom of their own.
He was glad to be an inspiration, and it moved him to believe he could touch his kinsmen's souls in ways other than the strictly literal. But he was familiar enough with his own flaws and darkness to find the hero worship uncomfortable. And the endless string of raids and retreats, the sleepless journeys from camp to camp, the constant filling of his soul and senses with death... It had begun to wear on him badly.
Still, he should have recognized the symptoms when they brought the man before him. His face was twisted with agony, and blood oozed from his eyes and mouth. His flesh had grown so weak that the Banik energy it contained shone through, making his body glow with a disturbing blood-colored light. Insanely, he was still trying to speak, as if he had something important enough to say that his death was a minor matter beside it. Stark quieted him gently. Words would be unnecessary between them soon.
Stark concentrated on gathering his own energy, suffusing it into the new flesh which now covered what once had been a painful, open breach between his flesh and astral selves, but was now a door to be open or closed according to his will. He shone gently on the man, soft golden light spreading onto sickly red. He reached out to calm the dying man's fear, to soothe his pain, to gently guide his soul to peace.
In return, he received, as he always did, a tiny remnant echo, which quickly settled into its designated place at the bottom of his mind, where it should not trouble him. He also received two horrifying words, and all the import behind them: novatron gas.
Stark followed his sacred duty through to the end. Then he bent over beside the corpse and threw up.
"So," said Ace, as much to fill the sudden silence as for any other reason. "This novatron gas. Nasty stuff, then?"
"It's horrible!" said Stark, and from the anguish in his face, you might think he'd been a victim of it himself. Then again, if the stuff he'd been saying about being in people's minds when they died was true, maybe he had been, in a way. "It eats you alive, from the inside out. Organs turning to liquid, cells exploding, leaking blood..." There was a wild look in his eye, like he was about to have some kind of fit, and Ace took a discreet step back, but he only took a deep breath, apparently trying to pull himself together, and finished in a quieter voice. "It’s horrible."
"Yes," said the Doctor. "It sounds it." His voice was even, but Ace could see that gleam in his eyes that said his sense of justice had been offended.
"We didn't think they had any," Stark continued. "The only source was the Plokavians, and their trading empire was nearly wiped out in the war." He smiled grimly. "The Scarrans didn't like the fact that they sold to both sides. But the man I'd crossed over was only the first. Reports began coming in... They'd used it on slave villages that supported the rebels. Hundreds of people, old people, children, innocents, dead. A few arns later, they put out an ultimatum. Surrender the fight, or they'd use the rest of it. They could blanket the planet, kill everyone, while they sit safe in their sealed bases. They've done it before."
He looked as if he were about to cry. Ace felt around in her pocket for some tissues, in case he needed them, and tried to smile reassuringly. "It's all right. We won't let 'em. Will we Professor?"
"No," said the Doctor. "Not if I can help it. And I usually can. How long before they release this gas?"
"Two solar days," said Stark, a look of dubious hope crossing his face.
"Hmm," said the Doctor.
He started to pace. Pilot's head swung to follow him, a worried expression in his eyes, then turned back to Stark. "I am sorry, Stark. I had hoped you would succeed with your plans to free your people."
"Oi, like the Doctor says, it's not over yet!" Ace smiled and looked at Stark. "Do you know where they keep this gas stuff?"
"At their main base, probably. They built it on the ruins of what was once my homeworld's oldest, most sacred city." He looked about ready to cry again. "But we could never get in! There are too many of them, too many soldiers, too many weapons."
"We could take the TARDIS!" Ace exclaimed, but her enthusiasm at this idea was cut short by a shake of the Doctor's head.
"You're forgetting, Ace. The TARDIS isn't going anywhere, not until the initializer's functional. And that is going to take--"
"Days," Ace finished glumly. She didn't bother pointing out that the TARDIS was a time machine and that, theoretically, they could just wait until it could take off and then go back in time. She didn't want another lecture on the dangers of crossing one's own timestream. It had been boring enough the first time.
"Exactly." The Doctor smiled at her. "No, we'll simply have to do it another way!"
"How?" asked Stark eagerly.
"I don't know."
"Oh." The Banik's face fell.
"But I'll think of something. In the meantime, why don't you get some rest?"
Stark started to argue, but the Doctor fixed him with that stare he had, the one that seemed to look right into you, and Stark blinked, nodded, and said. "I think I'll get some rest." He patted Pilot's claw in a friendly fashion and wandered off, looking rather dazed.
"Poor man," said the Doctor. "I hope he does rest. He certainly needs it."
"Kind of a strange guy," said Ace.
"You should have met him before," said Pilot mildly.
Ace decided not to ask, looking back at the Doctor instead. "Well? What are we going to do?"
"Go down to the planet," replied the Doctor cheerfully. "As soon as he wakes up. In the meantime..." He turned to Pilot. "You were telling me a fascinating story about Moya's waste recovery systems?"
Pilot's face lit up with interest. Ace sighed.
They landed Moya's transport pod some distance from the rebel Baniks' camp, at the end of a complicated approach carefully calculated by Pilot to keep them off the Peacekeepers' sensors. A pleasant planet, the Doctor thought. Blue sky, soft breeze, a lush coating of delicate blue-green vegetation that reminded him a bit of some world or other in the Bargarean Cluster he'd spent a pleasant holiday on, a lifetime or two ago. You might take it for a peaceful, happy place, until you got a look at its people.
They were dirty, ragged, painfully thin, some of them, and deeply weary. A band of slaves become an army. An army, facing what they believed was defeat. He'd seen it before, a thousand times, but it never failed to move him.
He took in all the details with practiced ease: biology (humanoid, but with interesting differences not at first glance entirely apparent), technology (pulse weaponry, not terribly advanced, but effective enough), and setting (well-hidden mountain camp, designed to be dissembled and moved at a moment's notice).
"We're with him," he muttered, waving his umbrella in Stark's direction, whenever someone approached him with a suspicious look. It seemed to work.
Interesting fellow, that Stark. He seemed to be regarded as a sort of leader, though the Doctor somehow doubted he saw himself as one. He moved among the Baniks, touching an arm here, trading a word or two there. The Doctor and Ace trailed along, until eventually they were taken to someone who appeared to be in a position of military authority: a tired-looking woman with piercing blue eyes, her hair tied with leather thongs in an elaborate style the Doctor assumed was some sort of cultural indicator of status. Interestingly, she also had a faint, glowing line along her jawbone, as if light had become trapped there below her skin. He trod delicately on Ace's toe to keep her from staring, and smiled warmly as Stark introduced them.
"Apaza, this is the Doctor, and Ace. They're friends of Pilot's. They say they can help us, help us destroy the gas, defeat the Sebaceans, and liberate our planet!"
Apaza looked them up and down critically. "How?"
It was, in fact, an excellent question. From everything the Doctor had seen, here in the camp and from the air, from everything Stark had said -- and not said -- yesterday and on the ride here today, and from everything the Doctor's well-honed instincts were telling him, finding a way around the problem of the poison gas was not going to be enough. These people were outnumbered, out-gunned, inexperienced, and rapidly succumbing to a successfully waged war of attrition. If the Peacekeepers had threatened to end it all suddenly and decisively, it was, in the Doctor's opinion, surely only because they had run out of patience. The Baniks, inevitably, were losing.
He smiled his most cheerful and reassuring smile. "I'll let you know." Just as soon, he added silently, as I do.
After a tour of the camp that, in Ace's opinion, included far too much being introduced to people whose names she'd immediately forgotten and far too little being allowed handle the ordinance, she and the Doctor sat down with Stark in his tent for a meal. Well, if you could call it a meal: mostly it consisted of some sort of tasteless bready stuff that vaguely resembled a scone that'd been left to sit out in the sun too long. The Doctor, she noticed, discreetly failed to eat any of it, though she wouldn't take any bets on whether it was because he didn't like it, because his ever-so-superior Time Lord physiology didn't need food right now, or because he was leaving it for the soldiers. Despite the supplies that had come in on the ship, they seemed to Ace to be low on pretty much everything.
"So," she said, mostly to distract herself from the food, "That Apaza, she's the one in charge here, then? What is she, like, a general?"
Stark shrugged. "She coordinates the fighting. People listen to her. Four cycles ago, she led a revolt of mining slaves. Three hundred Baniks escaped alive. It was the largest successful slave uprising in Peacekeeper history."
"So presumably," said the Doctor, "she knows what she's doing." Whether the Doctor agreed with that assessment or not, Ace couldn't tell. His eyes were giving away nothing.
"What about you?" Ace said, still looking at Stark. "You're, what, the chaplain? You're some kind of priest, right?"
"Something like that."
"Oh, rather more than that, I should think," said the Doctor. "You carry a great deal of influence. It seemed clear to me that Apaza only accepted us because you vouched for us."
Stark looked uncomfortable. "Pilot vouched for you."
Ace grinned at the Doctor. "And here I thought it was your trustworthy face!"
The Doctor gave her an exaggeratedly modest look. "Well. That, too."
She grinned back. "Hey, speaking of faces..." She looked at Stark again, was suddenly struck by the sight of his scarred face, and felt a rush of embarrassment. She continued on quickly, not wanting him to get the idea that she was talking about him. "What was that thing, on Apaza's neck?" She indicated a spot along her jaw. "It looked like it was glowing!"
"It was," said Stark. "We Baniks are composed partly of energy. These physical bodies are only our manifestations on this place of existence. A... a corporeal shell, a form that anchors us to this realm. But there are places where the energy leaks through. It manifests itself on this side as light. Most Baniks have a weak spot like that on their bodies somewhere, although it's seldom that bright. The Mark of the Baniks, they call it." His voice grew rather bitter. "It's what distinguishes us from Sebaceans. Marks us out as slaves."
Stark's hand had gone, unconsciously, perhaps, to the scarred half of his face. Ace, on impulse, decided to ask after all. "What happened?" she said gently.
"My Mark was more like a hole. A breach. It helped to make me what I am, but it also caused me great pain. I only recently learned how to heal it. To heal many things, perhaps." He stroked the puckered skin lightly. "I am still healing."
There seemed to be something deep and sad and strangely alien about him now. It made Ace mildly uncomfortable, for no reason she could put her finger on, and she decided to change the subject back. "So, you really exist partly in another dimension from this one? As some kind of energy being?" Put that way, it sounded kind of hard to believe.
Stark nodded gravely, then gave her a crooked smile. "Yes."
Stark looked confused, and perhaps a little hurt. The Doctor jumped in quickly. "What she means," he said, "Is that she finds it an appealing and intriguing concept. Ace's language occasionally tends to the idiosyncratic." He reached out and tweaked her nose playfully.
Stark looked back and forth between them. "She really is one of Crichton's people, isn't she?"
"Eh?" said Ace.
The Doctor waved a hand impatiently, his mood suddenly changing, in that unpredictable way of his. "Enough of this chit chat. I need to think."
"About what?" asked Ace.
"About how we're going to sneak into a secure base guarded by heavily armed and highly trained soldiers, destroy their supplies of an incredibly dangerous poison gas and get out again with our lives."
"Oh, that," said Ace. "I'm not worried. You'll think of something."
"Yes," he said darkly. "But what then?"
When Stark tried to question him about what he meant, he got up and left. To "plan," he said. Ace tried to force down her nervous feeling, but suddenly she really didn't want the rest of her bread.
The Doctor proceeded to disappear for the better part of a day. Ace found him at one point, poring over Banik intelligence reports, but he impatiently waved her away. When she went looking for him again later, she was told he'd taken the shuttle thingy and gone back up to Moya for "equipment." Ace felt rather put out by this. Even if he had just gone to fetch something from the TARDIS -- and with the Doctor, you could never quite be sure whether he was up to more than he was admitting to -- she hated being left behind.
The Baniks weren't especially fun company, either. You'd expect a bunch of guerilla fighters to be livelier, but, with the exception of Stark, who had this weird ability to go from skittery to serene and back in the space of minutes, they were all so... quiet. Never seemed to want to show you what they were thinking, or feeling. Ace wondered if they were just naturally calm, or if they didn't trust aliens, or what. The only time she got any real reaction out of them was when she got them to talking about the Peacekeepers, and what the Peacekeepers had done to their people. They were horrible stories: slavery, rape, torture, murder... It was depressing. No, more than that. It made her angry. And she hated sitting around waiting for the Doctor to do something about it.
So it was something of a relief when he finally showed up, grabbed her and Stark each by an elbow, and swept the two of them away from yet another meal of indigestible bread and into Apaza's tent.
Apaza looked up at them with characteristic Banik expressionlessness and put down the portable computer thing she'd been looking at. The Doctor said nothing, but pulled some sort of gadget out of his pocket and set it on the little desk in front of her with a triumphant flourish.
"What," asked Apaza, regarding it neutrally, "is that?" Ace was wondering the same thing. It looked like a couple of random TARDIS components strapped to a TV remote with some kind of weird alien duct tape.
"It's what you asked me for," the Doctor replied. "A way into the Peacekeeper base." He stood up straight and jammed his hands into this pockets, leaning back a little. "It's a low-power, one-shot, bi-directional transmat." He smiled. "Rather a good piece of off-the-cuff engineering, if I do say so myself."
Apaza and Stark looked at him blankly. "A transmat," Ace added helpfully, glad to show off the knowledge she'd picked up traveling with the Doctor. "A matter transmitter. Picks you up here." She tapped a spot on the desk. "And, bam!" She slammed her hands together, fist-on-palm, "Takes you there!" She tapped the other side of the desk. "Without ever having to go through the places between."
"Colorful," said the Doctor, "and decidedly oversimplified. But accurate." They exchanged grins.
"Matter transmission?" said Stark. "That's impossible!"
The Doctor made a tutting noise. "Really? I'd think Baniks, of all people, would recognize that it's no such thing. Transferring matter through an alternate dimension and assembling it into humanoid form? Isn't that how you form those bodies of yours in the first place?"
"That's different," said Apaza calmly. "We manifest these forms as infants. After that, we're locked into them, and they're locked into the material plane. We can't just... discorporealize and reappear somewhere else."
"Usually," said Stark. He had that strange, lopsided smile again.
"Ah!" said the Doctor, looking at Stark. "So you've done it! Well, there, you see?" He turned back to Apaza, smiling. "What can be done with spiritual ability and strength of will can also be done with technology, albeit more crudely." He tapped the gadget. "This will transport a small group of people behind the enemy's defenses, right into where they're keeping the gas. If your intelligence is correct."
"It is," said Apaza.
"Good, good. As I said, this transports us in, we destroy the gas -- a moderately intense blast should be sufficient to break apart the complex bioactive compound into harmless byproducts, assuming the molecular formula you gave me is right."
"It is," said Stark, the eagerness in his voice a strong contrast with the curtness in Apaza's.
"Good. And then," the Doctor smiled. "We transport out again. One round trip only, I'm afraid. Transmats aren't exactly easy to cobble together. I was only able to manage this one thanks to having stocked up on spare parts at that electronics fair on Traxacapetofarelian Minor."
Ace's ears had pricked up at the word "blast." "You mean, we get to blow something up?"
"We get to blow something up," said Apaza. "I see no need for you two to come."
"Ah," said the Doctor. "But you'll need me to operate it."
She looked dubiously at the device for a moment, then nodded. "All right. But the girl stays. I don't need two aliens of unknown fighting ability to keep track of."
"Hey!" cried Ace. "Now, wait just a minute, Professor! I'm--"
"Ace." It was his I'm-not-going-to-argue voice, and, when she looked at his face, she could see that he was resolved. Too dangerous. To complicated for the poor little human girl. Yeah, right.
"Ace..." But she didn't hear the rest of what he said, because she'd gone charging out of the tent.
Ace watched from the concealment of the trees as the Doctor finished drawing a large circle in the dirt with the tip of his umbrella.
"All right," he said, hooking the umbrella over his arm and drawing the transmat device out of his pocket. "Everyone who's going, into the circle."
Apaza stepped forward with a couple of Banik fighters and Stark. She looked grimly determined and more than ready to do some damage. She'd smeared dirt or something across the glowing spot on her cheek. Ace wondered if it was to make her less visible, or less obviously a Banik.
"All right," said the Doctor, raising his voice to address the assembled rebels. "Now, there will be some disorientation during the transport. That's normal. Give it a moment and it will pass. Remember, when we get there, we need to stay together. The device will pick up everyone within an area the size of this circle, and no one outside of it. We go in, we destroy the gas, we leave. No side trips to see what else you can blow up and who else you can shoot. Got it?"
There was a murmur of assent. Ace didn't think it sounded very enthusiastic.
"All right, then," said the Doctor. He looked around. For a moment, Ace thought he'd seen her, but then his gaze swept past. He looked a little disappointed, she thought. Probably hoping she'd have come to see him off. She smiled.
The Doctor looked back at Apaza and straightened his coat. "Everyone ready? Good." He moved to the center of the circle and raised his gadget. His fingers performed a complex dance over the controls, then hovered over the final button. "One... Two... Three!"
As his hand came down on the button, Ace leaped. She sailed across the boundary of the circle, her ponytail flying, her rucksack bouncing against her back. "Banzaaaaiiiiii!"
She just had time to catch the angry look on the Doctor's face before everything disappeared.
Despite a sudden rush of nausea, Apaza's hand went reflexively for her weapon as they recorporealized to the sound of screaming. Her arm came up, the barrel of her pulse pistol pointed in the direction of the noise, only to be slapped back down again immediately by the Doctor.
"Don't shoot! It's only Ace!" His voice transmuted from an alarmed shout to an almost-amused mutter. "I should have guessed."
She blinked, swallowing bile, forcing herself to push aside her disorientation and focus. It was, indeed, the Sebacean -- no, human -- girl standing there, with a self-satisfied smirk on her face.
"Told ya before," Ace said. "I don't like being left."
Apaza glanced at the Doctor, but he was merely shaking his head in an indulgent fashion. Too indulgent, in Apaza's opinion. She knew what it took to turn workers into fighters: it took discipline. You couldn't let a soldier get away with disobeying orders and disrespecting authority any more than a master could a slave. "Do anything like that again," she said, "and you will be left. I understand the Peacekeepers are eager for a human to dissect."
Ace muttered something in response, but Apaza ignored her. The girl had distracted her enough from the tactical situation as it was. She looked around with a practiced eye. They had materialized in a small storage room, just as the Doctor had said they would. One exit, probably locked and guarded from the outside. Assuming they were actually inside the Peacekeeper base at all, that is. "Are we in the right spot?"
"Yes," said Stark quietly. He was looking around at the walls. They were of simple baked-earth blocks, decorated, now that Apaza looked closer, with an intricate pattern of finely traced lines and buttressed with beams of dark polished wood. "I know this place. It was the Temple of Belsta, before the Peacekeepers occupied it and made it part of their base. It was a holy place." He touched one of the beams and chanted something softly in the Stykera's secret tongue.
Apaza shrugged. "Whatever it used to be, it's nothing but enemy territory now." She turned to her soldiers. "Revst, Linza, stand guard. The rest of you..." She gestured with her gun towards the rows of storage containers that lined the walls. "Find that gas."
She ripped open the lid on the nearest container. It was empty.
Ace dashed across the room to open another. "This one's empty, too." She moved down the row. "Empty, empty... Professor?"
The Doctor moved rapidly down the rows of containers, tapping them with his umbrella. They all made empty, hollow sounds.
"It's not here," said Apaza, "is it? The frelling gas isn't here."
Stark felt despair rising up in him again, a wave of hopelessness that swept away thought and awareness. He had failed. He had trusted this stranger, clung to him with blind, irrational faith, but hadn't his experience proved that for every time a stranger came to your rescue there were a dozen, a hundred times when the best intentions failed and the universe left you to suffer? Why should he imagine he could ever save his own people, when he had failed so many others?
He wanted to scream with the unfairness of it, to howl, to cry, to...
No. That was the reaction of the broken slave, of the Aurora Chair's victim. He was not that person any more. He took a deep, meditative breath, conjured a memory of serene purple light to drive out the red-tinged darkness, and was himself again, quickly enough, he thought, that no one had noticed his lapse. He focused on the Doctor, trying to concentrate on what he was saying.
"The device was calibrated for five, not six. The extra mass threw us slightly off-course, that's all. If my calculations are correct, we've simply arrived a few rooms from where we should be."
"Sorry," said Ace.
Apaza gave her a murderous look. Well, murderous by normal Banik standards. Stark suspected it would probably come across to a human as mildly annoyed. "Right. Where do we go?"
The Doctor fished a paper out of his pocket, scrutinized it carefully, then turned it upside down and scrutinized it carefully all over again. Then he stuffed it back into the pocket and looked at them with a supremely confident smile that Stark didn't trust. It reminded him too much of his own "I have a plan!" expression. "Out the door, down the hall, three rooms to the left."
"Right," said Apaza again. Then she shoved past the two Baniks on guard and kicked the door open.
It yielded easily. Of course, Stark thought. Why guard and lock an empty storeroom? Outside, all seemed quiet. Apaza raised her weapon, and slipped out the door, her soldiers immediately behind her. Ace shot the Doctor one last apologetic glance and followed.
Stark suddenly felt a hand squeezing his shoulder and looked around to see the Doctor standing there, a sympathetic look on his face that suddenly made Stark realize his earlier reaction had not gone unnoted after all.
"Come on," said the Doctor gently. "I think it's up to us to keep them out of trouble."
But by the time they stepped into the hall, the shooting had already started.
The guards outside the storeroom the Doctor had indicated as the correct one were taken completely by surprise. Stark felt the first one die even before she hit the floor, a smoking hole drilled neatly through her head by Apaza's pulse rifle. The second got off a round of fire, missing Linza, the smaller and faster of Apaza's two handpicked fighters, by scant denches. Linza didn't give him a second chance, shooting him squarely in the chest. Then, as he fell to the floor, in the head. And then, smiling horribly, in the crotch.
Behind Stark, the Doctor muttered something in a tone of grief and disgust. Stark closed his eyes for a moment, giving thanks that at least the they had not suffered long.
Linza and his companion, Revst, kicked the corpses away from the storeroom door with rather too much enthusiasm, and Apaza raised her gun to aim at the lock.
The Doctor shouldered her aside. "Let me," he said, waving some device that had mysteriously appeared in his hand. "Brute force isn't always the answer."
Apaza snorted slightly at the disapproving tone in the Doctor's voice, but moved aside and let him apply the instrument to the lock. Stark peered over his shoulder and almost smiled with a strange, twisted sense of nostalgia. It was a magnetic crypt encoder. Easy to make, but even less reliable than waiting for a heroic stranger to come charging to the rescue. They would all die of old age before the Doctor managed to--
Then again, maybe the Doctor's version was a bit better than his.
This storeroom held only one container. Intuition told the Doctor even before he opened it that this was, indeed, what they sought for, but he nevertheless let out a tiny sigh of relief as he lifted to lid to reveal the contents.
They didn't look like much: a dozen canisters, each small enough for a humanoid to carry easily in one arm. But appearances, as the Doctor well knew, were deceiving. There was enough concentrated death in this room to lay waste to an entire civilization.
"This is it," he said, his fingers brushing lightly over the metallic surface of the canisters. "Their whole supply, in highly compressed form. Apaza, hand me the explosives."
But behind him, Apaza said nothing. The only sounds were a swift rush of movement and an outraged gasp from Ace.
The Doctor slowly turned and found himself face-to-barrel with Apaza's gun.
"Small change of plan," she said, her face set in the neutral, impassive lines that years of slavery seemed to have made the natural default expression for her people. "We won't be destroying the gas, after all. I do hope you're not going to be difficult about it."
"Oh, but I'm very good at being difficult," he said, his body carefully held between Apaza and the gas. "It's what I do." He let his voice drop to a lower volume, a higher intensity. "Think, Apaza. You know what these weapons do. You've seen it. Horrible, painful death, organs liquefying from the inside out. Hundreds, thousands, dying slowly, and no one there to ease their passing or take their pain. Is that what you want to become? Is that the person you want to let the Peacekeepers turn you into? Someone capable of inflicting the very same atrocities that they've unleashed upon you?"
Apaza was wavering. He could see it: the tiniest flickering of doubt in the depths of her eyes. He held her gaze with his own and began to reach out, slowly, for her gun.
Behind Apaza, Stark broke into an anguished wail. "No! Nooooo!" He lunged forward, only to be grabbed instantly by Linza and Revst, who looked faintly apologetic, presumably for manhandling a holy man, but held him firmly nonetheless. Apaza's gun held steady, and the momentary flicker the Doctor had seen in her eyes died, replaced with a cold resolve. The moment had passed. The Doctor dropped his hand, recognizing defeat, at least for the moment. He cursed himself silently. All this time, he'd been wondering what the Baniks would do after they eliminated the gas, trying to formulate a plan. And all this time, Apaza had had a plan of her own.
"You're all going to stand over there," said Apaza, her weapon moving the tiniest fraction to gesture towards a spot in the room. "Away from the gas. And you're going to be quiet and behave yourselves."
"Yes," said the Doctor under his breath. "Like good little slaves. You really have become as bad as the people you're fighting, haven't you?"
Ace's reaction was much louder. "You traitorous scumbag! We helped you!"
"Yes," she said. "And I do appreciate it. Believe me, I don't want to kill you. Which is why, if you don't interfere, you'll be fine. But we are going to take this weapon, then we're going to use the explosives to destroy the evidence that we've taken it, and if you try to stop us, I will shoot you."
"What?" said Ace, gesturing towards Stark, who was still struggling against his captors. "Even him?"
Apaza glanced at Stark, her gun still held steady at the Doctor's head. "I won't kill a Stykera. But I have no compunction against disabling one."
Stark snarled and roared like a caged and wounded animal, but Apaza just shook her head. "Don't, Stark. You may have convinced the Peacekeepers you were a dangerous madman who couldn't be counted on to consider his own self-preservation, but I know better. If you ever were that mad, you haven't been since your contact with the Eidolons." Her formerly expressionless face formed a small, unpleasant smile. "You told me that yourself."
Stark's face fell instantly into a sullen, beaten expression, and the fighting tension faded from his body, leaving him only tired-looking and limp. Revst and Linza slowly released him and aimed their weapons at him and Ace.
Quietly, the three of them moved to the spot Apaza had indicated. She kept her gun steadily held where she could shoot any of them in an instant, as her soldiers began unloading canisters from the crate and shoving them into thin collapsible bags they had pulled from their pockets.
The Doctor decided to try one more appeal to rationality. "You've forgotten one thing. How much do you think those canisters weigh? Collectively, I'd say more than a full-grown Banik. The transmat device barely worked on the six of us. Add that much mass, and it's likely not to work at all."
"I hope that's not the case, Doctor," she said coldly. "Or our uninvited guest is going to have to be left behind."
"Leave me," said Ace with a bravado that touched the Doctor's hearts, "and I'll tell them you took the gas. They'll never give you a chance to use it."
"No," said Apaza. "If we leave you, I promise, you'll be in no state to tell anyone anything." She smiled again, and the Doctor felt a chill. "Don't worry, though. I'll make it quick. I'll even let you have a Stykera."
The girl opened her mouth to respond, but Apaza never found out what she was going to say, because at that moment the door flew open and the Peacekeepers burst in. She spun instantly, her gun raised, cursing herself for a fool. She'd been so focused on the threat here in the room with them that she'd left her back exposed to her real enemies.
She completed her movement just in time to see Revst's head explode in a shower of gore and dissipating energy. With an un-Banik-like shout, she returned fire at his attacker and saw him fall with a satisfying hole through him, but that still left two of them. They'd probably been passing and noticed their fellow soldiers lying dead. Sloppy, she thought. Sloppy. But she hadn't intended for things to take this long...
As she shifted her aim to one of the still-standing Sebaceans, she was dimly aware of the Doctor and the girl taking shelter behind the storage container. Possibly not the best idea, as it was still half-full of gas, but then, if the stuff were released, probably everybody in this building would be dead anyway.
A pulse blast sizzled by her ear, close enough to sear her skin. Linza was not so lucky, and fell screaming and clutching his chest. Apaza did not give her own attacker time to fire again, but covered him in pulse fire, continuing even after he had fallen.
Stark, who had been huddled by the wall, crawled forward toward Linza, apparently intent on taking the man's pain. Apaza shouted a warning to him, but it was drowned out by another round of pulse fire as the Stykera took a hit. Apaza couldn't quite tell where; possibly in the arm.
The third attacker, smarter or more cautious than his colleagues, was using the doorway as cover and ducked out of sight quickly. "Frell," she said. She was going to get exactly one more chance. If she was lucky. She held her gun steady on the arch of the doorway, waiting, waiting...
Suddenly, the Peacekeeper's gun reappeared, as did the top of his head. She blew the former apart, even as the latter fired.
Something was happening. The room was spinning and falling around her. Or was she falling through it? There was a sensation, something demanding her attention. It took her a moment to realize that it was pain, but once acknowledged it quickly grew until there seemed to be nothing else in her existence.
She'd been shot before, and lived. This... did not feel the same. Frell.
She became vaguely aware of someone touching her, of a voice saying something she could not quite make out. She blinked moisture she hadn't previously been aware of from her eyes and tried to focus. Stark. The person bending over her was Stark, pale and bleeding. He gently stroked her forehead, and she felt herself touched by soft golden light.
The pain melted away, replaced by warmth, and peace, and the clear, certain knowledge that she was dying. I'm sorry, she told the presence she could feel touching hers. I only wanted what was best for our people. You understand...
I understand, he said. Rest now.
No... Panic and despair struggled against the soothing waves of light. Stykera, my work's not done. You have to finish it. Take what you need...
I will. She could feel the sincerity behind the unspoken words, and felt something inside her relax. I will. Rest.
So she did.
To Ace, it had all seemed to happen very quickly. She huddled behind the crate of gas, watching the fighting for as long as she could before she had to shut her eyes and block out the sight. At some point, her hand had clasped onto the Doctor's shoulder, and she could feel his body quivering as if he were desperate to leap up and intervene. Probably to give them a good talking-to, knowing him. But he didn't. He just kept saying, "No, no, no," under his breath. And if the Doctor wasn't doing anything to stop it, Ace knew, there probably wasn't anything to be done. The thought didn't make her feel any better.
When the shooting stopped, she slowly opened her eyes again. There were bodies everywhere, splattered blood, the smell of burning meat. She swallowed hard, determined not to embarrass herself by throwing up, but it was a near thing.
Near the doorway, Stark was sitting on the floor, his head bent over Apaza. His face was glowing. He'd described to them before what he was and what he did: energy being, crossing over the souls of the dead... Ace had thought the whole thing sounded sort of dodgy. She'd never realized it would be this beautiful. His light seemed to fill the room, to drive out the horror and the fear. Is this what the light in the tunnel looks like when you die?, she wondered.
Then suddenly the light faded, and Stark slumped over Apaza's body. Grief, Ace thought at first, that in her opinion Apaza didn't deserve. But, no, she realized as he turned to look at them, he'd been hit. One arm was a ragged mess of burnt flesh above the elbow.
"We have to go," he said, his voice remarkably calm. "The Peacekeepers almost certainly reported our position before they attacked."
The Doctor was at his side almost before Ace noticed he'd moved. "Yes. Yes. We need to destroy the gas and leave. There's been enough killing for one day." He tore the paisley scarf from around his neck and used it to bandage Stark's arm, then quickly began rifling Apaza's pockets.
"Amen to that." Ace stood up shakily and reached the Doctor just as he pulled something out of Apaza's pocket with an "Aha!"
"Found it?" she asked, bending forward to look.
His face fell. "Yes." He dropped something down onto Apaza's unmoving chest: a burnt mass of fused and twisted metal.
"The detonator," she said.
"I'm afraid so."
"Frell!" said Stark. Ace wasn't sure what that meant, but she could probably hazard a guess, and it was hard not to agree.
"It looks like we'll have to take it back with us, after all," the Doctor said. "And destroy it later."
Ace looked dubiously at the half-filled bags and the canisters still in the crate. "Do you think we can carry all that?" She shifted her gaze to Stark's pale, shocky face. "The two and a half of us?"
"We'll have to," said the Doctor grimly. "The transmat won't take non-living matter unless it's being worn or carried. Frankly, I'm more worried about being jumped by a hoard of vengeful Baniks bent on finishing what Apaza started and relieving us of our burden before we get the chance to blow it up."
Somewhere in the distance, an alarm sounded. Ace looked nervously towards the door and swallowed. "Best get started, then."
She moved back to the gas crate to finish unloading the canisters, the Doctor right behind her, but as she did so, her foot thunked against her rucksack where it lay beside the container, abandoned where she'd dropped it when she dove for cover. Better be careful, she thought. There's still a couple of cans of Nitro-9 in there. Don't want to kick 'em about too much.
She blinked. "Hang about! Doctor, I've got explosives!" She unzipped the rucksack and began rummaging around in it frantically. It had to be here somewhere.
The Doctor shook his head sadly. "It's a good thought, Ace. But I'm afraid it's going to take something a bit more powerful than Nitro-9 this time. The gas has to be utterly destroyed, not released."
"OK," she said, pulling the explosives she'd "liberated" on Moya and holding them up with a triumphant grin. "How about these, then?"
The Doctor peered at them with a surprised expression that would have made her want to giggle, if the situation weren't so serious. And if they weren't surrounded by so much blood. "Yes... Yes, I think those will do nicely, in fact."
"Looks like there's some kind of timer on 'em," she said, and started poking at the buttons. A readout lit up. With some sort of alien symbol on it. Then it changed to a different symbol. And another. "Uh... I think I activated it." She held it up so the Doctor and Stark could see. "Anybody know what this means?"
Stark struggled woozily to his feet and looked at it. "It says..." He leaned closer and squinted a little. "Ten microts."
"OK," said Ace. "What does that mean?"
"It means we need to get out of here now!"
"Um... Oops?" Ace dropped the explosive device on top of the gas crate as if it has suddenly become white-hot, kicked the Baniks' half-full bags over until they were touching it, and snatched up her rucksack, in what was very nearly one fluid blur of movement. She looked expectantly at the Doctor... who was patting his pockets and looking panicky.
"Professor..." The readout on the detonator began to flash.
"Ah!" he cried, pulling the transmat gadget from his pocket at last and jamming his finger down on the button.
Ace was sure she heard the explosion start in the instant before the world disappeared and she suddenly found herself back at the Banik camp.
"How's the arm?"
Stark looked up from where he lay on his bed-pallet, startled. He hadn't seen or heard the Doctor come in. "It hurts," he said, with a little shrug that sent another jolt of pain through him. "But I've endured worse."
"Yes," said the Doctor, as he moved across the tent to sit by the bed. "I'm sure you have." There was a mixture of sympathy and understanding in his eyes that, somehow, Stark found disconcerting.
"How is... everyone?" There'd been people in to tend to him, of course, to dress his wound and offer him food, but no one had seemed to want to talk to him about anything important. He needed his rest, they'd said. Of course, they were probably right. He still felt as if he might never be rested again.
"Uncertain," said the Doctor. "Confused. Badly in need of a leader."
"Did you tell them...?"
"About Apaza? Yes. I thought it was the sort of thing they ought to know."
Stark nodded and sat up a little, ignoring the pain as he shifted his body. "How did they react?"
"I think they're rather waiting for you to tell them how to react."
Stark considered that. Of course, he was the only thing resembling a leader the rebels had now. But it was, in Stark's opinion, a poor resemblance. "Apaza... gave me things, when I crossed her over. Military information, practical knowledge. But I'm not a war leader. I'm a Stykera." He smiled ruefully. "And my plans don't exactly have the highest record of success."
"Ah, well," said the Doctor. "We all have to become something new eventually. Whether we're quite ready for it or not. Believe me, I know." He patted Stark sympathetically on the leg. "Your people, sadly, are used to being told what to do. They'll need someone who knows when to tell them, and when to make them think for themselves."
Stark felt strangely flattered by this, but the emotion faded quickly as a memory asserted itself. "There was something else," Stark said at last, "that I got from her mind."
"That she didn't expect your people to be able to win?"
"Yes," said Stark, surprised that the Doctor had guessed. "She'd kept it from me. From all of us. But even without the threat of the novatron gas..." He trailed off, shaking his head. He didn't want to think about defeat. He'd experienced so many failures in his life that he might by now expect the concept to be easier to face, but it wasn't.
"Are you sorry we destroyed it after all?" The Doctor's voice was quiet.
"No!" The word erupted from Stark forcibly enough that it caused him to wince in pain again as his arm jolted against the bed. "I've seen what it does! It's horrible. I wouldn't use it on my worst enemy. Not even now."
The Doctor nodded slowly. "Well. At the very least you've bought yourselves some time." His face suddenly flashed from serious intensity to a rather mischievous smile. "And caused the Peacekeepers some consternation. Apparently they can't figure out how we got in. The rumor is they suspect your people have learned to teleport using only the power of your will."
Stark smiled ruefully. "They wouldn't be concerned if they had any idea how painful and difficult that is. Or what kind of circumstances it takes, even for a Stykera." His memories of being dispersed by the Plokavians and slowly piecing himself back together were not ones he wanted to dwell on. And he'd never realized how much damage the experience had done to his mind, until the power of the Eidolons had begun showing him how to repair it.
"Hmm," said the Doctor. His eyes were suddenly a million metras away. Stark tilted his head and regarded him curiously, wondering what was going on in his mind.
At last, the Doctor blinked and focused on Stark again, then stood up abruptly, patted Stark's uninjured shoulder, and headed for the entrance to the tent.
"Where are you going?"
"To think," said the Doctor, and in a flap of tent cloth, he was gone.
Stark lay in the bed, feeling as if something significant had just happened and wondering what it was.
Ace found the Doctor alone in what had been Apaza's office-tent. "There you are, Professor."
The Doctor looked up, but his eyes seemed to be focused on something inside his own alien brain.
"I just wanted to..." Damn. This had gone smoother in her mind. She'd never been any good at apologies, particularly when she wasn't sure whether she even ought to be making one or not. "Well, I didn't realizing jumping in like that would mess things, up, you know. You're not mad at me?"
"Hmm? Oh, no, no. It all worked out in the end, didn't it?" His voice, too, was distracted and distant. "If only we could be sure of everything happening that way."
She sat down across the desk from him, leaning forward and crossing her arms on its surface. "You've been thinking," she said, in a sort of mock-accusatory tone. "I can always tell. Your eyes go all funny."
He looked surprised. "Yes," he said with a small smile. "I suppose I have been."
He sat up abruptly, his eyes finally focusing on her. "Interesting species, the Baniks, don't you think?"
"If by 'interesting' you mean 'creepy', yeah."
"Ace." The Doctor's tone was rebuking.
"Sorry." She did find them a little creepy, though. The way most of them had of seeming to look right through you without giving you any idea what they were thinking. That whole freaky, glowy death-priest thing of Stark's. And Apaza hadn't exactly won them any PR battles, either.
"I meant," he said, "their hybrid existence as beings of matter and energy. Don't you find that interesting?"
"Yeah, I suppose." It'd probably be more interesting if she actually understood it, but she wasn't going to admit that to the Doctor.
"Think of it," he said. "A substantial part of their existence lies in another dimension, outside of normal space and time. Does that remind you of anything?"
She thought about it for a moment, then blinked in surprise. "The TARDIS? What, they're bigger on the inside than on the outside? Professor, are you saying these people are, what, living TARDISes?"
"Not precisely. But it does seem likely that the Baniks' 'energy realm' is the same sort of spatially transcendent dimension that the TARDIS interior occupies. And that raises some interesting possibilities."
Ace was starting to feel intrigued. "Like what? Like, they can travel in time?"
"No, no. They'd have to be much more advanced creatures than they are for that. Although some of them do seem to be rudimentary time sensitives, or at least as if they could be, under the right circumstances. Our friend Stark, for one."
"Time sensitives? You, mean, like, able to sense disturbances in the timelines?"
The Doctor nodded. "Or possibly even able to affect them, with help. Give them a few million years, assuming they survive, and they may well evolve into something quite remarkable."
"How do you know?"
He smiled mysteriously. "A Time Lord can tell."
Ace rolled her eyes.
"Besides," the Doctor went on, "if their energy dimension does lie adjacent to the Temporal Vortex -- and I believe it does -- it would be surprising if some of them weren't capable of sensing it. It could even account for the mystic powers of their Stykera. The Vortex is a mysterious and powerful place."
A strange thought suddenly flitted across Ace's mind. "Hang about, if these Baniks are all huddled up in some kind of dimension that's, like, pressed against the Vortex somehow, then that bump we hit...?"
"Might have easily been a deformation caused by the transtemporal pressure of their dimension on the Vortex, yes." He gave her that proud, pleased smile that always made her feel like she'd just done something particularly smart. "The thought had occurred to me."
"That's all very interesting, Professor, but what does it have to do with helping the Baniks gain their freedom?"
"Ah," he said, "that rather depends." He twirled his umbrella in his hands for a moment, looking, Ace thought, rather troubled. "What's the other important thing about the TARDIS?" he asked suddenly.
"Um, let's see..." Ace began ticking points off on her fingers. "We've had 'bigger on the inside than the outside.' And 'travels through time'..."
"It also... travels through space!"
"Bingo!" he said, and playfully tapped her nose.
"I don't get it."
"Something the Baniks said gave me a thought. The way we transmatted in, the Peacekeepers are afraid the Baniks may have learned to teleport under their own power."
"But they can't."
"No. Not usually. But..."
"But they could perhaps be taught to. Fundamentally, they're extra-dimensional energy linked to a three-dimensional corporeal shell. Exactly like the TARDIS, in fact. The difference is, the TARDIS is capable of dissolving the shell and re-integrating it at a different point in spacetime, and the Baniks, generally speaking, aren't."
"But they could be?"
"Apparently Stark's done it once already. It doesn't seem to have been a pleasant experience, and I don't believe he managed the discorporation on his own. But, yes, I could teach them. Or more accurately, the TARDIS could. They have all the necessary parts, so to speak, so it's less a question of technology than of technique. Show a Stykera the trick -- especially one who's developed an inkling of it already -- and he can show others. They've an interesting form of pseudo-telepathy, you know. I sincerely doubt it only works on the dying."
"And they could teleport all on their own, without you around to build them dodgy transmats! Professor, that's brilliant! With an advantage like that, they could win the war in no time. They could make all kinds of mischief, right under the Peacekeeper's noses! In and out, and bang, no one the wiser!" Ace half rose from her seat with barely contained excitement.
The Doctor, however, looked pensive and gloomy. "Yes. And there's the rub. I can do it. But should I?"
Ace thought about that for while. "Stark seems like a pretty good guy," she offered eventually.
"Yes," said the Doctor. "I believe he is. But then, so was Apaza, in her own mind."
"I see your point," Ace said glumly. "It's too much power to trust to anyone. But, Doctor... What happens to them if you don't?"
"I think," said the Doctor. "They'll probably all die."
Ace lowered her head onto her arms. "I hate moral dilemmas," she said.
"Yes. So do I." The Doctor went back to staring into space. Ace closed her eyes and tried not to think about dead Baniks, or about worlds laid waste by novatron gas.
She didn't succeed very well.
Stark had got himself out of bed and had just finished managing a rather awkward one-armed meal when the Doctor found him again.
"Hello," said the Doctor with a strange but friendly smile, as he seated himself across the table from Stark. "I was wondering if I might ask you a rather personal question." His voice was low and serious.
"All right," Stark replied, regarding him somewhat warily.
"Apaza... You crossed her over -- is that what you call it?"
"You crossed her over, gave her comfort in her last moments, even though she betrayed you. Was it simply to get information from her mind?"
"No!" Stark failed to hide the shock and insult he felt at this suggestion.
"Mmm," said the Doctor gently. "Why, then?"
"And she was one of your people."
"Yes." Stark paused, suddenly realizing what it was the Doctor wasn't saying. "The others were dead before I got to them."
"Even the Peacekeepers."
"Yes." He hesitated again, his hand, as it so often did, unconsciously raising to caress the scarred flesh of his cheek. "I'm... I'm glad I was spared the need. But I would have helped them, too. If they had let me."
The Doctor regarded him for a long moment. "Yes. Yes, I believe you would have."
Stark looked at him, puzzled. "That was what you came to ask me?"
"Yes and no," said the Doctor. He drew in a long breath, as if he needed to prepare himself for whatever he was about to say next. "I have... a proposition."
"Stark," said the Doctor, "this is the TARDIS. TARDIS, this is Stark."
Stark looked around, wondering. As the Doctor had told him, it was, indeed bigger on the inside than the outside, but somehow it looked entirely different than he might have expected. It was very... white.
The Doctor made his way to the hexagonal console in the center of the room, and began pressing buttons, turning dials, and typing into keypads, flitting around the panels in what looked to Stark to be a completely random pattern.
"All right," he said, twisting one last knob and patting the console affectionately. "I've told her what you're going to be doing." Interesting, Stark thought. He'd got the impression that the Doctor's ship was a machine, and it certainly looked like one, but he talked about it as if it were a living being, like Moya. Perhaps it was both. Perhaps he would find out. He found himself feeling both excited and oddly nervous at the prospect, and had to force himself to pay attention to what the Doctor was saying. "She's partially telepathic, so once you've opened a connection, you should feel her connecting back."
The Doctor looked at him as if to confirm he'd understood this, and he nodded, even though he wasn't entirely sure he had. He was still a little skeptical that this plan of the Doctor's would work, but if there was even a chance...
"She'll show you what you need to know," the Doctor went on. His voice took on a darker, warning tone. "Don't try to go in any farther, even if you find it tempting. Vortex energy is extremely dangerous, and there are things inside the TARDIS even your mind would find it impossible to encompass. Understand?"
"Yes," he said. "I understand."
The Doctor grinned, all trace of darkness gone from his face. "Well, then. There you go! Good luck!" He patted the console and stepped back to stand beside Ace, who had been leaning silently against a wall, watching them.
Stark took a deep breath, then stepped forward slowly to take the Doctor's place. He stroked the console for a moment, somehow feeling it appropriate to make some gesture of greeting. Then he closed his eyes, concentrated for a moment on the place where his astral self interfaced with his corporeal form, and began to glow.
Contact. He could feel it at once: a strong, powerful presence, not alive in the way he was used to thinking of such things, but conscious in its own way, nonetheless. It felt very old, and very alien, and it seemed simultaneously to be tightly bounded and to stretch into infinity, as if it were connected somehow to every point in space, every moment in time. Perspective shifted -- his doing or its, he couldn't say -- and his Stykera senses suddenly perceived it as a tangled network of luminous threads, stretching off into dimensions he could not quite see. He stared at them, fascinated, longing to take hold of one and follow it. He actually found himself reaching out, with his energy and perhaps also with his physical body, when he stopped himself abruptly, remembering the Doctor's words. The entity before him radiated a sense of approval, which, while wordless, nevertheless somehow conveyed the impression of being in the Doctor's voice. Stark wondered if perhaps he had passed another test, as when the Doctor had asked him about crossing over Apaza.
Show me, he said. Show me how to travel as you do.
The TARDIS showed him.
It was so simple. So beautiful, and so simple. Dematerialization was not like the dispersal the Plokavians had inflicted on him, but more like crossing over the dead: a matter of translating oneself to another plane of existence. Finding your destination was like holding onto a memory, calling forth an image and going there in your mind. Rematerializing was like remembering how to be born.
This was nothing he had not done before, only different applications, in different combinations. How could he never have seen it? How could he -- all his people -- have been ignorant all their lives of how to do this wonderful, simple thing?
Thank you, he thought at the presence touching his mind. Thank you. He wasn't sure it understood gratitude, but it did understand the satisfaction of a job completed, of an experience shared, and he could feel that it was happy to have helped.
When at last his glow faded and he came back to awareness of his physical self, there were tears in his eyes. He thought perhaps he could see a little more light out of the right one than he had before, but that might have been his imagination.
He turned around to discover the Doctor and Ace looking at him curiously.
"Well?" said Ace. "Feel any different?"
Stark thought about that. He didn't feel different, exactly. In fact, it was a bit like the changes wrought in him by the Eidolon energy. "I feel..." He touched the healing scars of his face. "I feel like I've become more of myself."
He didn't think that actually expressed the complex things he was feeling very well, but the Doctor nodded as if he understood. "Good." He gave Stark a wide smile. "Why don't you go and tell Pilot?"
Stark nodded, feeling, in some strange way, both calm and nervous at the same time. He closed his eyes, picturing Pilot's den, as clearly as any image he had ever seen and kept in his mind. He reached into the dimension that contained his energy self and performed an action he could easily demonstrate but never describe. He felt... something. A sense of dissolving without dispersing, of travel without movement. It was giddy, exhilarating... and as different from what the Plokavians had done to him as love was different from rape.
He was laughing with joy when he reappeared before Pilot's startled, wide-eyed face.
The Doctor had told Pilot to let him know when Stark got to the den. He hadn't said to expect the Banik to appear out of thin air. It took Pilot a moment to recover his composure, but he more or less managed it. After all, he'd told himself, he'd seen stranger things. Hadn't he? Still, he could hardly keep the astonishment from his voice. "Stark?"
Stark grinned hugely. "Yes! It worked! It worked!" He was laughing, bouncing... Capering, even. Pilot hadn't seem him like that since his experiences with the Eidolons, and wondered for a moment if whatever had just happened to him had affected his sanity. He had certainly seemed much less stable the last time he'd recovered from being dispersed.
Pilot toggled Moya's comms system to the frequency he'd set up to communicate with the Doctor's craft. "Doctor? Stark has just, um, appeared."
"Excellent! Excellent." The Doctor sounded almost as pleased as Stark did, except that the tone in his voice was more "quiet satisfaction" and less "bouncy mania."
"He seems very..." Pilot looked at Stark again. He was still all but dancing, but the look in his eyes, Pilot decided, was steady and sane. "...very happy," he finished. He felt a sudden surge of affection for the Banik, through his connection with Moya. She'd seemed much more fond of Stark ever since he'd piloted her briefly during Pilot's absence. Fortunately, he'd long since gotten over any irrational feelings of jealousy he might have had about that.
"Sounds like he's got a good reason," came Ace's voice over the comms.
"So," said Pilot, "everything is all right, then?" They hadn't told him much, having been too eager on their return to Moya to get on with whatever project they'd had in mind. One that involved teaching Stark to disappear and reappear at will, apparently.
There was a moment of hesitation that would have been almost imperceptible to any being but a Pilot. "We destroyed the gas," said the Doctor. "The rest, I think, is up to Stark. I'm sure he'll tell you all about it when he's calmed down."
Pilot smiled at Stark, who grinned back and nodded. "It's wonderful!" Stark said. "Wonderful!"
The Doctor laughed, a very soft, kindly-sounding chuckle. "Yes." He paused again. "Do keep an eye on him, Pilot. Stark is a good man, but I suspect he might find it useful to have a kind, level-headed friend or two about."
"I'll do that, Doctor. Thank you."
"Thank you," Stark echoed, his voice barely above a whisper now, but still full of excitement and emotion. "Thank you. Thank you." He stroked one of Pilot's arms, and Pilot wondered if the gratitude was meant for him or for the Doctor, or both.
"Good," said the Doctor again, and closed the channel. Pilot had the odd feeling he was not going to hear from them again.
"I will tell you all about it," said Stark. "But I have to see my people first. I have to show them." He touched the scars on his face, with an almost reverent motion, then gave Pilot another wide smile... and vanished.
Ah, well. Pilot knew that he and Moya would see him again. Somehow, they always did.
"Well," said the Doctor. "I suppose that's it, then."
"Is it?" said Ace.
She watched as, instead of replying, the Doctor pulled something out of the TARDIS console, peered at it, and slotted it in elsewhere.
"Is that the crystal stabilization thing?"
"Crystal-fibroid temporal-stabilization initializer circuit. And yes. It's fully regenerated now."
"So we can leave?"
"Yes. I think our work here is done, don't you?"
Ace thought about that. "I guess. Like you said, it's up to Stark now, innit?" She looked down at her hands for a moment, her fingers rubbing lightly along the edge of the TARDIS console, then back at the Doctor. "Did we do the right thing, do you think? I mean, the Baniks aren't going to use their amazing teleportation powers to overthrow the leather-wearing baddies and then go on to enslave the galaxy themselves, or anything?"
"Who knows?" said the Doctor. "It's happened before." He stared off into space for a moment. "Somehow, I don't think so, though." He smiled. "Perhaps we can come back sometime and see."
Knowing how distractible the Doctor was, Ace thought it likely that he'd forget about this possibility completely in a week or so. But she found she rather liked the idea. "I may just hold you to that, Professor."
He smiled and ruffled her hair. "In the meantime, I believe when we were interrupted, I was attempting to take you to the planet Sagraforea. They have a wonderful little cafe there that I know you'll like..."
A moment later, the TARDIS was gone. A DRD rushed in to investigate the space it had just vacated, but neither Pilot nor Moya was surprised when it found no evidence that anything had ever been there.
Two Baniks were joined by a bridge of light.
I will show you, said Stark. This is how it is done. Thoughts and images flowed between them, faster and more accurate than words. And, always, threaded through every point of their contact, a sense of deep, spiritual emotion. This is a sacred thing, to travel in this fashion. It is to move through the realm the Stykera touch, the place where our energies and spirits exist. It is not to be used for cruel or petty reasons, not for revenge or greed. Not to kill. Do you understand?
Stark could sense truth and sincerity behind the thought. He responded with a feeling of calm approval. Then here is the rest. Here is how to find your destination. Here is how to remember your body into being when you arrive. Here is what it is to be matter and energy and spirit, intertwined and interchangeable, as Baniks were meant to be. Here is your gift, and your responsibility.
I understand, the young man said again. And when the contact had been gently withdrawn, Stark could see that his face bore an expression of reverence and joy.
"Go on," Stark said. "Try."
The young man chanted a soft prayer, closed his eyes... and moved to the other side of the field in which they stood without occupying the space between.
Stark smiled. He knew the Doctor had been unsure about showing them the path to this power. But he was quite certain that, with a little guidance, his people would do both of them proud.
He teleported to his student's side and rewarded him with a warm, exultant hug.