Characters: Ninth Doctor, Rose Tyler, Jack Harkness
Summary: A supposedly harmless planet holds unexpected dangers, and disturbing revelations about the Doctor's past.
Disclaimer: The sandbox belongs to the BBC. I'm just playing here, in the corner, making little sand-TARDISes. Not making any money, not asserting any claims.
A/N: Sorry (again) for the delay. The end is in sight; I estimate one or two more chapters. There are not enough words in the OED to thank my wonderful betas, yamx and wendymr, who caught stray commas, blatant Americanisms, and plot holes big enough to fly a medium-sized starship through.
Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8
Chapter 9 Chapter 10
or read it on Teaspoon
The guide didn't follow them up the stairs and into the corridor, so it's just the three of them staring at the beautifully-written letters that spell out an ugly message. Let evil be cast out before it can breed corruption. For one split second, they're all frozen, then the blokes are in motion. The Doctor is facing the door, screwdriver in hand; Jack is facing the corridor exit, scanning with his wrist thingummy. Rose is between them, and not by coincidence, she knows.
They've got 'protect the girl' coded into their DNA or something. She'd call it a bloke thing, but she knows plenty of blokes that haven't got it. Adam had no problem leaving her to save his own skin; Jimmy Stone hurt her when he was plastered. Whatever it is, these two have got it. Her own personal knights in shining armour, ready to defend her against... graffiti.
She steps forward, so she's next to the Doctor, looking at the door. "Nobody inside? No booby traps?"
He shakes his head, and starts to reach for the doorknob, but her hand on his wrist stops him. She reaches into her lovely dress and pulls out a crumpled but clean tissue. She spits on it, getting as big a glob as she can manage, and then she begins to erase the chalk words. The blokes stare at her. She ignores them. She's Rose Tyler from the Powell Estates, and she knows about graffiti. Most of the time, you ignore it -- no, you don't even see it. If it's personal, though, you take action. You make it go away. She has to spit a couple more times, but within two minutes, the door is clean. She nods at the Doctor, and follows him into the room.
The white room looks undisturbed. Their things are sitting exactly where they left them: tools in the far corner, clothing tossed on the bed nearest the door. Rose strips down to her knickers, then pulls on her faded t-shirt. "Who's taking the first watch?"
The blokes exchange wordless messages. "I will," Jack says. "I'm wide awake."
"Thought so," Rose replies. "I need some sleep now. Long day. A few hours will be enough, and I can take the second watch."
"You okay, then?" Jack asks casually.
She shrugs. "Somebody here doesn't like us. Not exactly big news." Though she's talking to Jack, she watches the Doctor out of the corner of her eye. Are those stiff shoulders loosening just a little bit? "Promise you'll wake me. Promise you'll get some sleep, too." When Jack gives her his promise, she stretches out on the narrow bed. She has only a moment to regret there's no room for company before sleep embraces her.
After Rose's breathing takes on the gentle rhythm of a sleeping human, Jack joins him in leaning against the wall. "You think there's any real danger?" Jack asks.
He shrugs. "Maybe, maybe not. For most people, writin' a nasty message is enough. Gets the aggression out of their system. No need for a mauve alert just yet. Keep watch, be ready for trouble."
Jack sighs and studies the ground. "I might've made a mistake blackmailing Kiy."
"Prob'ly not. From what you an' Rose told me about him, he could have written that little love note, but he's not the sort to get violent."
Jack's posture says he isn't convinced. The Doctor pivots so he's facing the younger man, close enough to feel his body heat. "Jack. Leave it be. Was a reasonable risk, makin' him talk to you. Might've done it myself." He leans in and plants a light kiss on Jack's lips. "Stop worryin'."
Jack relaxes slightly. "I'll try."
"Good lad. I'm gonna close my eyes, rest. Don't forget to wake Rose."
"You think I should?"
"I think you'll be in real danger if you don't." Rose can be fierce about doing her share, and there's no reason she shouldn't take a watch. "An' you should get some sleep tonight. Won't be much use to me tomorrow if you're dead on your feet."
He lets himself slip into a qesh'a meditative state. It's light enough that he can come alert instantly if needs must, but he knows that it looks deeper. That's a good thing. He's already bungled things badly with Jack; he doesn't want to do anything that will make the lad think he doesn't trust him to keep watch.
The end of the first watch comes, but Jack is still pacing the floor. The Doctor considers speaking up, then decides against it. Jack has a decent sense of time for a human. Two minutes and seventeen seconds later Jack bends over Rose, tapping her lightly on the shoulder. "Rose? Rose? Time for the the second watch."
Rose mutters something that even his superior hearing can't interpret, and her eyes flutter open. "Wha--?"
"Second watch," Jack repeats patiently.
Rose sits upright. "'Kay. 'M up." She stifles a yawn. "Don't s'pose there's any tea?"
"Sorry." Jack starts to rummage in his pocket. "I think I've got some stimtabs..."
"No thanks. They give me a headache."
That's his cue. "Rose -- you want to go back to sleep? Can take two watches, me. Been restin' while Jack was on guard."
He can see fatigue and responsibility warring on her face. "Up to you," he says with a careless shrug. "If you're tired tomorrow, you can nap while Jack and I are fixin' the solar conversion array."
Bulls-eye! Rose frowns. "If you're sure..." She makes another token protest, then lies down and is out like a light.
Jack pushes a second bed next to Rose's. He can't really snuggle -- it's not like a proper double bed, but the nearness allows him to drape a possessive arm across her back. In less than fifty-three seconds, he's asleep.
The Doctor watches them. He loves to watch them sleep when he can. It isn't as easy as one might think. If he starts off in bed with the humans, it's a challenge to extricate himself after his brief sleep cycle. Rose clings. No, that isn't quite correct. She... intertwines. The only word that describes it properly is a Gallifreyan verb that refers to the interaction of two or more gravitational fields. Never mind the bloody physics -- he can't get out of bed without waking Rose.
If he enters their shared bedroom when the humans are already asleep, it's usually Jack who reacts. The Captain, with his survivor's instincts and military training, is a very light sleeper. He's also got just enough telepathic ability to sense someone watching him. (Rose, bless her, is as head-blind as most humans from her era.)
He can't explain exactly why he likes watching them like this. When he thinks of his partners, conjures up the composite memory-selves that live in the back of his mind, they are always in motion: Rose running at his side, laughing and exuberant; Jack, strong and lithe, whether in bed or in a fight. The stillness of sleep ought to bother him, ought to remind him of the pitiful shortness of their lives. Perhaps it's that sleep strips them of the masks humans wear, even with lovers.
He snorts quietly. You're a fine one to be talkin' about masks, Doctor. Who have you ever allowed to see all of you? No one on Gallifrey, for fear that they would not understand the person beneath the persona; none of his companions, for fear that they would.
With effort, he pushes away those thoughts, and all the others that crowd around him like black flies. This oh-so-brief moment is a gift, and he'll be damned if he'll let fear of the future or the weight of the past ruin it for him. He positions himself for the best view of the joined beds, leans against the wall, and begins to stockpile memories.
Jack is the first to awaken. No surprise there. No one will ever mistake Rose Tyler for a morning person. She's quietly grumpy over breakfast -- fruit and some kind of beverage that looks like tea but tastes like burnt toast -- but her smile slowly returns once they're outside.
This time, it's one of the Elders who guides them. Estridon was Senior Engineer on the Arrow of Hope, and seems to fill a similar function in the settlement. Jack wonders how the man felt, dismantling the Arrow to create planet-based power systems. Most ship's engineers that he's met would rather build a footstool out of their mother's bones.
If Estridon has any such feelings, he keeps them well-hidden. He's all business -- polite enough, but not exactly chatty. "The array is on the caprock," he says, pointing up to the top of a section of cliff at the southern end of the settlement. It's one of the shorter ones, Jack notes -- only 80 or 90 metres high.
"Don't suppose there's a lift," Rose murmurs, soft enough that only her partners can hear her.
"Even if they bothered to install a lift tube, I doubt they can spare the power to operate it," Jack says.
"When we're finished here," Rose says, "I want a holiday. Somewhere with a nice beach, yeah?"
The Doctor turns and smiles at her. "Anywhere you like."
Under other circumstances, Jack knows, the Doctor would suggest that Rose wait down below. Not now. He might be all right with it if Jack stayed with her, but that's not going to happen. No way are the Doctor's partners going to let the Time Lord climb up there without them.
The access stairway to the caprock isn't far. Two other A'atrans meet them at the entrance, which is behind a locked door. Estridon introduces them as his apprentices. Hanorra is a confident-looking woman in her mid-30s, Jack guesses. Trotting behind her is an adolescent boy in a moss-green tunic. His eyes are nearly as wide as TARDIS roundels, and he's barely suppressing a grin.
The boy matches Rose's description of one of the Haveners, the settlement-born kids that she and the Doctor met earlier, but he bobs his head and recites the words of formal greeting as if this is the first time he's seen any of the offworlders.
Introductions complete, they divide the tools and repair materials between six large rucksacks. The long trek to the top is conducted mostly in silence. Jack is in good enough shape that he could climb and talk, but he's not feeling very chatty. He prefers to save his energy and keep a wary eye on the A'atrans and on his surroundings.
Though this staircase is carved into the rock, just like the one they ascended yesterday to the waiting room, it's much more utilitarian. The steps are even and level so that no one will stumble on them, and the carved guide-rail is smooth enough not to abrade the skin on his hand, but the walls are rough and unfinished. The glow discs attached to the walls are bright enough that he can see where he's putting his feet, but he wouldn't want to try to read a tech manual by their light.
The top of the staircase ends in an open hole in the clifftop, and he's glad of the metal railing that encircles it. The sunshine is dazzling after the relative dimness of the stairs.
He moves just a few paces away, letting his eyes adjust. Once he can see clearly, he stares.
There's nothing unusual about the technology. Even engineers from Rose's century could guess the purpose of the large black panels placed in neat rows across the top of the mesa, though the control circuitry would give them headaches. By Jack's 51st century standards, the solar array is ordinary, somewhat old-fashioned, and badly worn by weather and years of heavy use.
"It's a kluge," he says to the Doctor, now standing beside him, "but gods -- what a magnificent kluge!"
Fully half of the original support racks are gone. The non-conductive polymer tends to turn brittle after five years. On an industrialised world, it's cheap and easy to replace. On this back-of-nowhere planet, they have substituted ceramic racks, hand-sculpted from the local red clay into the shapes of vines and branches. Straps and bindings are woven from synthsilk in patterns of gold and mocha and rust. Even up here, where the work will only be seen by birds and the occasional maintenance crew, the A'atrans opt for beauty.
"Pretty," the Doctor agrees, "but pretty won't keep their lights on. Over here, Jack. Rose, bring that bag, will you? Estridon -- how many circuit testers have you got?"
"Not over there, you numpty! To the left! The left!"
The Doctor is happier than she's seen him since they landed on this planet. He's got a problem with a clear-cut solution, jiggery-pokery to keep him busy, and a gang of workers that he can order about like navvies. The six people who trudged up the stairs this morning have been joined by a dozen more -- and that's not counting the young Haveners who have been running up and down with messages, supplies, tools, and now, lunch.
Most of the Haveners are volunteers who just want an excuse to stare at the aliens; Kurden is ridiculously proud that as an apprentice he gets to assist the Doctor and Jack. In his case, "assist" means holding tools until they're needed. That's enough for him to lord it over the other Haveners, who are mere gofers. It's even sweeter for him, she suspects, that one of the gofers is his older brother. 'Course, Vannarik is probably happy not to get too close to the Doctor. The Time Lord gave him a good scare when he tried to stick his knife into the TARDIS.
Lunch is a picnic. Most of the caprock is covered by the solar panels, but there's enough room between them and the waist-high safety railing to spread out blankets. They're almost too pretty to sit on, she thinks, even as she settles down to eat. Ought to be hanging on a wall, like those tapestries in the castle on Trehinor.
One of the Haveners passes out thick flatbreads, each one the size of a large napkin. Another distributes two-pronged forks, their bone handles carved into graceful spirals. Stacked containers are opened to reveal morsels of roast meat, marinated vegetables, and fruit. As the containers pass from hand to hand, Rose spears pieces of food and places them on her 'plate'. A bright orange pickle is spicier than she likes, but everything else is delicious.
"You don't want the chatkha?" Jack asks.
Rose shakes her head. "Too hot for my tastes."
"I like hot," Jack says with an exaggerated leer. "In fact, I--"
The Doctor lets out a soft snort. Rose picks up the cube of chatka -- she only took a tiny nibble -- and pops it into Jack's mouth. He swallows it along with the rest of his sentence.
Kurden is handing out cups. Something like a large canteen hangs from a shoulder strap. He fills a cup for Estridon, then turns to the visitors. "Honoured Guests, you will like this, I am sure."
The Doctor take a sniff. "Thorn-fruit?"
Kurden nods. "The juice, spiced with sweetleaf."
The Doctor drinks deeply. "That's fantastic, that is."
"It also makes an excellent wine," Estridon says. "When the work is done, you must sample some."
"We'd love to," Rose replies. "Cheers!" She touches her cup to Jack's.
Kurden lingers just long enough to watch them take long, thirsty gulps before moving on to serve others.
All too soon, the empty food containers are packed away. The young gofers take their time shaking and folding the picnic blankets. Rose digs in her pocket for the tool she'd been using, which resembles a wire-bristled toothbrush. She assumes that she'll return to what she was doing before lunch -- scrubbing corrosion off conduit tips. She turns to Jack. "Think I can get a job as a dentist's assistant after this?"
Jack is staring into the distance. It's not at all like him. "Oi, Jack!" She steps closer and notices that he's breathing very fast, almost hyperventilating. "You okay?" He doesn't respond. She steps in front of him. Jack's pupils are much bigger than should be possible beneath this bright, cloudless sky. Only thin rings of blue border the huge black circles. "Jack? What's happening?"
He doesn't respond. She's about to turn, to get help, when his nose starts bleeding. At first it's just a few drops, but within ten seconds it's a thin but steady stream.
This is bad. This is very bad. Her mate Shireen had nosebleeds when she was little. Something to do with allergies, her mum said, and she grew out of them by the time she turned ten. This is much worse, with the blood flowing from both nostrils, and -- oh hell! -- a bright red tear forming at the corner of his left eye. Besides, Jack doesn't get allergies, he told me that. They did something to his immune system before he was born.
If it's not an allergy, and he didn't fall down or get hit... she'd not sure what the other possible causes might be. Surely a brain tumour couldn't develop so quickly? Jack had a full med-scan just a month ago, when he got conked on the head during the Trehinor revolution. A venomous insect? An alien fungus?
In the split second it takes for her to think about these terrifying possibilities, she's already turning, eyes searching for the person who will know, who can make everything right again. "Doctor? Something's wrong with Jack."
The Doctor's right behind her. Oh, my God! His eyes look just like Jack's -- enormous pupils almost completely eclipsing the irises. There's no blood, and he isn't breathing funny, but it can't be a coincidence. "Doctor?" she squeaks.
Jack spins around, staring at the Doctor. And the Doctor whimpers -- really, there's no other word, he whimpers like a frightened child -- and lunges at Jack. Rose takes an involuntary step backwards, but before she can protest, the two men are grappling with each other. It's more like wrestling than a fistfight, but there's nothing fun or playful about it. The Doctor tries to shove Jack aside, but the younger man ducks and twists, and the Doctor's hands brush across his face, becoming coated with the blood that is still streaming from Jack's nose.
Rose is shouting, begging for them to stop it, stop it! The Doctor screams, and the sound is like nothing she has ever heard. High-pitched, and with more than one note in it, like a shrill chord from a church organ.
Jack lets out a hoarse gasp and stumbles backwards, colliding with Hanorra. He recoils again and drops into a crouch, arms crossed in front of his face.
"Somebody help -- please -- don't let them hurt each other!" Rose tries to step between the two men, but the Doctor is turning, pushing A'atrans out of his way as he heads towards the front of the caprock. He looks like he's about to break into a run, to head straight for the low railing and the fatal emptiness beyond, only Kurden is there, frozen in place with terror or stupidity or misplaced courage, and the Doctor dodges sideways and half-jumps half-falls into the spiral stairway.
She's running. Feels like she's always been running, and always will. She remembers, in a blurry sort of way, begging Estridon to take care of Jack, and hurrying down the stairs after the Doctor. When she reaches the bottom he's out of sight, but she knows which way he must be going. TARDIS. Gotta be. There's confusion and shouting in the settlement as she passes through, but no one tries to stop her. Once she's on the path beside the stream, she breaks into a proper full-out run. Less than a minute later, she sees the Doctor.
She never realised before how much he holds back when they're running together. The dark figure ahead of her is tearing up the path at a fantastic speed, even though he's zigging and zagging like a drunk. "Doctor!" she shouts. "Wait for me!"
He doesn't slow, doesn't even glance over his shoulder. Instead, he runs even faster. Rose tries to shout louder, but she has a stitch in her side and her lungs feel like they're going to explode. The sight of the TARDIS up ahead comforts her. Once they're inside the TARDIS, everything will be okay. The Doctor will figure out what's wrong with Jack, and with himself, and he'll sort it. He'll sort everything.
The Doctor scarcely slows as he approaches the TARDIS. Suddenly, the door is half open. The Doctor slips through, and slams it shut behind him.
Rose is ten metres away and fumbling for her key when a sound like a raspy growl brings her to a halt. She stares. P'rhaps I'm sick, too. Hallucinating. Must be. Something is wrong with her eyes or her brain, because she can't possibly be watching the TARDIS dematerialise.