It was a sunny, too-hot morning in July when Ace showed up on her doorstep.
Only she wasn’t on the doorstep, strictly speaking, and she didn’t knock or ring the bell like a normal person. Mel stepped outside, her floppy sunhat dangling from her fingers, and there was Ace, sitting astride a motorbike, wearing sunglasses, a tank top, and a cheeky grin.
“Morning, donut,” she said. There were freckles on her shoulders. “You busy?”
As a matter of fact, she was. She was supposed to be at work in less than an hour. She had a very respectable and very interesting programming job. She couldn’t just drop everything for a pretty girl on a motorbike. Even if it was Ace.
She dropped everything.
“Didn’t I do this already?”
She was trying to gain access to the Drodingagian ship. Their security system was very fiddly, frankly very badly designed — and now, suddenly, eerily familiar.
“What are you talking about?” Ace peered anxiously around the corner into the loading bay.
“Um.” Mel input a command.
Blip. The screen flashed red and angry, a blinking window popping up. Breach. Breach. Breach. Input manual override within 45 quozlars or module will self destruct.
“I know I did that already.” Mel sighed. “Déjà vu, I suppose.”
“Did you break it?” said Ace.
After that, everything happened almost too quickly for Mel to follow. A laser blast struck the wall beside them — Ace swore, loudly — and slung a can of Nitro 9 at the approaching Drodingagians.
The can struck shiny metal armour, rebounded, and thunked down atop the computer module. “Down!” yelled Ace, and then all hell broke loose.
“I say date,” said Ace as they roared along the road, Mel’s hair streaming out behind her. “I need your help with a teensy little problem.”
“I should have known.” Mel clapped a hand to her head to keep her hat from flying away.
“You can hack anything, right?” said Ace.
“Well, that depends,” said Mel.
“How are you with invisible spaceships?”
“They’ve been casing earth for a while,” said Ace breezily. “My thinking is, they’re planning an invasion. That or they want to start trading arms, and no, thanks. Either way someone’s got to do something.”
“Do something about what?” said Mel, who’d lost the thread of the conversation around the time the invisible spaceship came up.
“The invisible spaceship, dumbo,” said Ace as they whizzed past the florist.
“What invisible spaceship?”
“That invisible spaceship,” said Ace, nodding at the perfectly clear sky.
“Out of the way!” Ace hollered at an unfortunate pedestrian as they sped up the hill, pursued by six Drodingagians on flying silver bug-bikes.
“Where are we going?” Mel shouted. The air speeding around her ears was hot and dry. There was a distant roar on the horizon. The whine of the bug-bikes all but drowned out Ace’s engine.
“Why are they chasing us?”
“You’re loving this, aren’t you?”
Over her shoulder, Ace shot Mel a manic grin.
“I had a recce last night,” said Ace, clambering up the rope ladder like a monkey. “There’s modules all over the ship. We’ll just get you to one of those.”
“And do what, exactly?” said Mel, gripping the ladder and hauling herself up. She never had liked rope ladders, and the way they swayed about.
“Hack it,” said Ace brightly.
“Do you even know what hacking is?” said Mel. “I can’t just — break in. It’s not like putting a brick through the window. You have to know how the system works.” She paused to get her balance. “I’ve never even heard of these Dro — Drogin —”
“I don’t know a thing about them. How do you expect me to use their computers?”
“I have faith in you,” said Ace. “You hacked that computer in the year eight billion, remember?”
“That was a human computer, it had the same principles,” said Mel. “And I didn’t really hack it, just — oh, never mind.” Steeling herself, not looking down, she resigned herself to the inevitable. It was no use arguing with Ace, when she got like this. “I’ll do my best.”
“I’ve definitely done this before.” Mel stood back from the module, her hands on her hips.
“What are you talking about?” Ace peered around the corner.
“This.” Mel motioned at the module, with its blinking computer code. “I think we might be making a mistake.”
“They’re coming,” Ace hissed.
“Hm.” With one finger, Mel tapped in a command.
Breach. Breach. Breach.
Ace swore. Ripping a can of Nitro 9 from her belt, she shoved it into the module’s cooling grill and grabbed Mel’s arm. “With me!”
The module went up in a shower of golden sparks. She threw herself flat on the ground, hands over her ears. Then it was over — but as she raised her head, she heard another more distant explosion — and another, and another —
A crackling bolt of laser fire whizzed past Mel’s head. She squealed, and wrapped her arms tighter around Ace. Her ears were still ringing from the explosions that had destroyed the Drodingagian ship, that dreadful chain reaction they’d triggered.
“Is this your idea of a date?” she said to Ace as they swing onto the high street, tires screeching on the tarmac. “Blowing something up — and then almost getting me killed?”
“I was going to take you out to dinner afterwards,” said Ace indignantly. “Hold on tight. I’m putting us into turbo mode.”
“What’s turbo mode?”
Ace smacked a button, and the motorbike thundered.
“I’m my own woman now,” said Ace as she hopped off the motorbike onto the springy grass of the field. “A lone wolf, you might say. I go my own way.”
“You two fell out, then?” Mel swung herself off the bike, a bit less gracefully.
“Shut up.” Shading her eyes against the burning sun, Ace gazed up into the sky. “There it is.”
“How can you tell?” Mel squinted. “And how are we going to get up there?”
“Is it possible,” Mel said, staring at the blinking code on the module, “that this ship is a time machine?”
Ace frowned. “What makes you say that?”
“Just a hunch.” Boots tramped on the metal walkway. “Oh, well. Here we go again,” she said with a sigh.
Crack. Laser shot. Clang. Nitro 9, bouncing off the Drodingagian’s breastplate. Boom.
Lying on the ground, Mel listened to the distant, resonating explosions in despair. “Chain reaction,” she said to herself. “I’d say we have about three minutes before this whole places goes up.”
She looked up at the Drodingagian who’d fired on them. He looked down at her in mute horror.
“I’m really sorry,” she said.
“That’s why it’s been so hot and dry, see,” said Ace as they drove down the high street. “It’s the Drodingagians sucking all the water out of the clouds before it can rain. Further evidence that they’re up to no good,” she added darkly.
“I’ve worked it out,” said Mel.
“What? You mean, what they’re up to?”
“No!” said Mel. “Ace, I think that spaceship is a time machine. I think when we blew it up we set off a chain reaction — we’ve made some sort of, of time warp, and we’re trapped in it.”
“But we haven’t blown the ship up yet,” said Ace.
“But we’re going to, if we’re not careful,” said Mel. “Ace. We have to not blow it up.”
Ace sucked in a deep, slow breath. “I don’t know, donut. You’re asking me to go against my nature here.”
“Alright,” said Ace, smirking. “Alright. No blowing things up.” She switched gears, swinging them onto the road out of town. “You know, sometimes you sound just like the Doctor.”
“Wait.” Ace looked around the cramped metal cell. “When did we get arrested? And why, for that matter? We didn’t do anything wrong!”
“It’s probably because we blew up their spaceship and broke the timeline,” said Mel from the bench.
The cell was a dull blue. The walls were featureless. There wasn’t even a door. It was quite a predicament, Mel reflected.
“Well, other than that,” said Ace.
“It could be worse,” Mel resolved. “At least they haven’t — well, you know. Not yet, anyway. And we’re liable to get zapped out of here any moment.”
“Have you really not noticed?” said Mel. “I mean — Ace, do you have the slightest idea how we came to be locked in this cell? Because I don’t.”
Ace let out a long, slow breath. “I’m beginning to think you might be right about this timeline business.”
“The Doctor would know what to do,” Mel said to the blue wall.
Ace wheeled on her. “Well, the Doctor’s not here, is he?”
“Right,” said Mel. “This time, I’m doing it properly.” She stepped back from the blinking module, hands on her hips. “There. I’m not going to do anything. Problem solved.” She flashed Ace her most winning smile.
Ace rolled her eyes, and jammed the can of Nitro 9 in her hand straight into the module’s cooling vent.
“Ace, don’t —”
Lying on the ground, her hands clapped over her ears, Mel listened to the sound of distant explosions and felt a bit sick.
A Drodingagians loomed over her. “Um. Whoops?” she said.
“Why did you do that?” Mel yelled over the roar of the motorbike.
“I haven’t done anything yet!” Ace shouted back, accelerating past the florist, unreasonably gleeful. Her grin beneath her sunglasses was nigh-manic.
“Why are you so cheerful?”
They sat crouched behind a curious blue structure of interlocking pipes, keeping their heads down, out of sight.
“Right, so,” said Ace slowly. “Have we escaped, or is this how they caught us?”
“Didn’t we blow this ship up by now?” Mel hissed back.
A Drodingagians tramped past, turning its metallic head to and fro.
“This is the mothership,” Ace said once the coast was clear. “Non-atmospheric. Can’t fly outside a vacuum. The engines aren’t built for it.”
“You know, you sound just like the Doctor sometimes,” Mel mused.
“Oh, this is getting silly now!” Mel exclaimed. A laser bolt flew past them, and she squawked, throwing her arms around Ace’s waist.
“Maybe if you hack it, I won’t have to blow it up!” Ace declared.
“We could just not blow it up,” said Mel. “Pram!”
She buried her face in Ace’s neck as they swerved across the lanes.
“We have to stop them somehow,” said Ace.
“I only have your word they’re even hostile!” said Mel. “The universe could be ending for all we know — thanks to us!”
“How’s this our fault?” said Ace.
“This,” proclaimed the Drodingagians — general, king, high priest, Mel wasn’t sure which yet, “is all your fault.”
“Our fault?” said Ace. “How’s this our fault?”
“I fail to see how it’s our fault if your ship’s so badly designed that one little explosion can make it go up like that,” said Mel. “Really, it’s just bad engineering.”
“We didn’t anticipate aliens smuggling explosives on board!” snapped the Drodingagians general. Mel conceded the point with a shrug.
“What were we supposed to do?” said Ace. “You were trying to invade our planet!”
“We don’t know that,” Mel reminded her.
The Drodingagians looked a bit sheepish, in as much as anything eight feet tall and mostly made of metal could look sheepish. “We were planning to launch our invasion fleet,” he confessed. “But we’ve had enough! We don’t want your planet any more! Just — fix this!”
“Or what?” said Ace with a smirk.
Sixteen Drodingagians laser-rifles angled towards them.
“Ace,” Mel warned.
“Oh, not this again.” Ace aimed a kick at the cell wall.
“This isn’t fair,” Mel said.
“I know,” said Ace. “We didn’t even —”
“I don’t mean this!” Mel gestured at the cell around them. “I mean — you. You can’t just show up on my doorstep and drag me into this — this nonsense again. It’s not fun. It’s not fun, Ace! It’s dangerous and I’m frightened and I want to go home.”
Ace thrust her hands into her pockets, avoiding Mel’s sharp gaze. “How was I supposed to know what would happen?”
“That’s your problem, isn’t it? You never think things through!”
Ace looked at the ceiling.
“How long have we been doing this, Ace? How long have we been going round and round like this?”
The Drodingagian soldier loomed over her, blades flicking out of his armour with a metallic snick, and Mel screamed until her throat burned —
Thunk. A baseball bat caught the Drodingagian full in the face, and he staggered back with a cry. Smack went the bat into his gut, and he went down.
“Thanks,” said Mel, breathless.
“Any time,” said Ace, offering Mel her hand and a cheeky grin.
“Are we coming or going?” said Mel as the motorbike roared along the high street.
“Does it matter?” Ace braked, skidding to a sudden halt. Peering over her sunglasses, she nodded at the ship, or the patch of sky where they knew the ship to be. “Look. We have to get rid of that thing somehow, right?”
Crouched behind the blue pipes, Mel whispered, “I don’t know, Ace. I think it’s getting worse.”
“How can you tell?”
“We can’t blow it up again. We don’t know what might happened!”
“We have to do something.”
“Do we, though?”
In their featureless cell on the mothership, Mel sat on the bench, her legs drawn up to her chest. “I’m sorry I said this was your fault.”
“No.” Ace scuffed at the floor with her boot. “You were right. I really messed up this time. I just wanted an adventure, yeah? Like the old days.”
“Well, it could be worse,” Mel said as laser fire whistled overhead. “At least we’re together.”
Ace glanced over her shoulder in disbelief. “For God’s sake, donut! You’re incorrigible!”
They stood before the Drodingagian guards, hands up in surrender.
“You’re both under arrest,” said the squad leader. “For — something or other.”
Ace grabbed Mel by the collar of her smart shirt, and kissed her, and kissed her, and when she pulled away she took Mel’s breath with her.
“I love you,” said Mel.
“Yeah,” said Ace with a grin.
The Drodingagians shifted awkward, armour creaking, none of them sure where to look.
“You’re still under arrest,” said the squad leader.
Mel stared at the module in disbelief as, for the umpteenth time, it began to flash red. “Oh, this is ridiculous!” she snapped. “There’s no time.”
“Hang on tight!” said Ace. Adjusting her grip on the motorbike’s handles, she accelerated. “Turbo mode!”
Behind them, the bug-bikes screeched. Mel squeezed her arms tighter around Ace’s waist, and wished she didn’t have to let go.
Aboard the mothership, Mel stomped out of their hiding place, hands balled into white-knuckled fists. “I’m going to scream,” she announced. Turning her face to the heavens, she said, “I’m going to scream!”
Ace let out a cry and punched the wall of the cell so hard she bloodied her knuckles. “Ace,” Mel said, her plaintive words falling on deaf ears. “Ace — don’t —”
Mel dangled in empty space, clinging onto the rope ladder. “If the Doctor were here,” she said, not sure where she was going.
Ace glowered down at her. “Well, he’s not!” she snapped. Hand over hand, she climbed the ladder. “The Doctor — is off doing god knows what — god knows where — with god knows who — and this is our problem now, alright?”
“It certainly is our problem,” Mel mused, standing arms akimbo in the cell.
The module screen was flashing red. There was no way she could fix it, not now — things were speeding up, as if they were falling down a narrowing vortex, like war draining down a plughole.
“This isn’t going to work,” Mel said, realising the full truth of those words as she said them. Even if she could stop the explosion — who was to say the damage wasn’t already done?
“It’s going to be alright, donut.” On the deck of the mothership, Ace pulled Mel close, holding her. “I’ll fix this. I promise.”
She was sitting on the motorbike, holding onto her sunhat. “— what if —”
She was in the blue cell, cradling Ace’s bleeding hand. “— it’s too late?”
She was on a rope ladder, staring off into the clear blue sky, wondering how there could possibly be any danger, on a day this perfect.
Above her, Ace said, resolute, “it’s never —”
Mel lay on the floor, a Drodingagian rifled trained on her chest.
“— too late.”
She was back to back with Ace, holding a rifle of her own. “Aim for their eyes!” Ace yelled.
She was lying in a grassy field outside town, trying to catch her breath, the sky above her on fire.
She was standing before the module, her hands shaking, watching the screen flash red.
“Right,” said Ace. From her backpack, she drew a baseball bat.
Crash. Bang. Smash. Fizzz. She struck the module again and again and again, till the screen went black and shattered, till the casing cracked and wirey guts spilled out, till sparks hissed through the air, till it went dead.
Then, shoulders heaving, breath coming in quick pants, she lowered her bat.
“Well, that’s one way to do it,” said Mel.
Feet tramped on the metal deck plate. Three Drodingagians came up behind them, eyes wide and confused. Slowly, they lowered their guns. “Is it over?”
“You too, eh?” said Mel with a sigh.
They stood atop a hill outside town, Ace’s motorbike parked behind them, watching the Drodingagian ship as it folded into itself and flew away.
“Did we win, then?” said Ace cheerfully.
Mel screwed up her face in thought. “I suppose we must have done.” Tentatively, she reached for Ace’s hand. “How about that date, then?”
“You still want to go?”
“Well, you did promise,” said Mel. Darting forward, she kissed Ace softly on the mouth.
A grin spread across Ace’s face. “Right, then. I’d say my treat, but —”
“Don’t worry,” said Mel. “I’ll pay.” She squeezed Ace’s hand, and together they walked towards the motorbike, towards home.
It was a sunny, too-hot morning in July when Ace showed up on her doorstep. Mel opened the door and there she was, sitting on her motorbike, shoulders bare, wearing sunglasses and a cheeky grin.
“Morning, donut. You busy?”
Mel dropped everything. She always did.