Author’s note: Doctor Who and its characters are the property of the BBC. The words contained herein are MINE! I hunted, killed and skinned them myself. If any of them bite, its not my fault.
Time has no sense of humor.
Her three little sisters on the other hand, Fate, Circumstance and Coincidence, are generally regarded by most sentient beings as having a sense of humor that is well and truly warped. The cosmic equivalent of a royal pain in the butt.
Or whatever passed for said being’s nether regions.
Fate can’t be fought. Circumstance can’t be avoided. And the baby of the trio, puckish little Coincidence? The less said about her, the better.
Now Time, slow and patient –or an ancient prude if you asked the three- in most cases managed to keep them in check. Time’s logical progression had little place for the chaos a meeting of the three could entail. Alone and separate, exiled to their own regions of influence, spanked when necessary, the three could do little harm.
Circumstance, however, had an ally.
Point of fact, she had an uncountable number of allies, all containing within their make-up the one component that made them the most dangerous creatures in the multi-verse.
Given the right mix, the wrong choice, the wrong action –or the right ones depending on your point of view- and the stage is set. Freed from all restraint, the stage managers, Fate, Circumstance and Coincidence gather their players and run riot. They are going to have fun and a good laugh to top it off.
Time will run her course.
In the meanwhile, she is holding her breath.
She never learned how to laugh.
“Do I know you?”
Regarding the oddly dressed little stranger warily, the graying, middle-aged man finished loading what appeared to be a scuba tank into the back of an old range rover before responding. “I don’t think so. Should you?”
Ace was surprised at the almost hostile challenge in the man’s voice, the cool assessment in his dark gaze as he locked eyes with the Doctor. His face, weather beaten and lined with age, was uncompromising. It was, after all, just a simple question. Hardly earth shaking.
But then, with the Doctor, nothing was ever simple.
“Watch your feet!”
The man jumped, the bizarre stand off broken as a tall chestnut haired woman dropped a tank perilously close to his foot. Blissfully unaware of, or ignoring, the murderous glare he gave her, she looked him directly in the eye and told him firmly, “Behave!”
She laughed and winked at Ace. “Don’t worry, he’s had all his shots. If he bites, bite him back.”
Ace tried not to giggle. About her age, the young woman seemed to have that total disregard for age and wisdom that marked her as someone Ace, in another time and place, might have called friend.
Waving impertinently, she turned back towards the building, presumably for another load. An old worn sign above the door read Wayfarer, Inc. Travel and Exploration, Diving Specialists.
The subtle undertones of this exchange did not go unnoticed by the Doctor. “Probably not,” he finally admitted, answering the man’s challenge. “I meet so many you know. Old friends, new friends…” he paused, his eyes –gray today Ace noted- boring into the stranger’s soul, “…or enemies. One never knows.”
The man met that intense stare and held his ground. A small, amused smile was forming at the corners of his lips. Ace was impressed. Not many could stand up to the Doctor when he switched to intimidate mode. She had seen creatures twice the man’s size, armed to the teeth, cower beneath that gaze.
Apparently the Doctor didn’t find what he was looking for. “Chances are we haven’t met…yet.”
The man blinked. “Excuse me?”
“But will. Time is like that.”
“Is it? I wouldn’t know.”
Ace couldn’t help but sympathize. “Stick with the Professor long enough, you get the hang of it.”
“Ace!” the Doctor scowled.
Unrepentant, Ace resisted the urge to stick her tongue out. She stepped back as the young woman came out of the building with another tank. Ace shared a smile with her as she passed. Comrades. Youth against age. Beauty against the beasts.
Speaking of beasts, the Doctor had decided it was time to introduce themselves. “I’m the Doctor. And this…” he snagged Ace with the crook of his umbrella, “…is my friend Ace.” He offered the man his hand.
Now thoroughly bewildered but forced to be polite by a heavy tank being poked into his ribs by his companion, the man regarded that hand only briefly before taking it with a firm shake.
“Cathan Ward. The wench with the abominable aim…” he skillfully dodged the last tank, “…is my niece, Moira.”
“Hi,” Moira said. “And it is not. Abominable that is. I always hit what I aim at.”
“Really?” Ward’s response dripped sarcasm.
Moira laughed, obviously playing out an old well-loved game. “Keeps you on your toes, old man.”
Ward merely grunted, lifting the last tank into the back of the rover and slamming the hatch closed.
“What’s with the diving gear?” Ace asked curiously. “Are we near the ocean?” the last was directed at the Doctor.
He simply twirled his umbrella and smiled that magician’s smile Ace hated. “I have no idea.”
That got Ward’s attention. “You don’t know?” he asked skeptically.
‘Probably wants to know if we need to be put away’, Ace thought. She caught Moira’s curious glance. “Travel with the Doctor’s like that,” she told her. “A magical mystery tour.”
“Sounds like fun.”
Ace sobered, remembering. “Can be.”
Ward’s clear dark eyes caught and held Ace’s for a brief moment. “I’ll bet,” he said, voice and expression perfectly serious.
For a fleeting second, Ace saw a glimpse of something in that gaze that unnerved her. An understanding, a sympathy she felt sure should not have been there. Then it was gone, replaced by a deep, fathomless stare that startled her with its familiarity. She had seen that look before.
In the Doctor’s eyes.
This was getting way weird.
Ace took a very deep breath and plunged forward. “So what is the gear for?” she asked him.
“Gears for cave diving. Wheardham has a very nice submerged system…”
The Doctor, unusually silent up to this point, interrupted. “Wheardham? A very old name. How curious. So that’s where we are.”
“Yes.” Ward watched the Time Lord, expression unreadable. Ace figured these two could give each other lessons on inscrutability. “I’ve been mapping the system for years. Always like to add a little more when I’m home for awhile.”
“Which isn’t often,” Moira piped in.
“Moira!” The rebuke went completely ignored.
Ward limped, favoring his left leg, over to the rover’s driver side doors. “Look, I’m not trying to be rude…”
Moira snorted disbelievingly.
“…but we do have to get this pile on site before nightfall.” He glanced up at the sky, scowling. “As if the weather wasn’t already becoming uncooperative. Was there something we could help you with?”
The Doctor looked up at the dark, ominous clouds rolling in from the northwest. He didn’t seem surprised. “It does appear somewhat malignant, doesn’t it?” he said cryptically. “No help, thank you. Just wanted to satisfy my curiosity.”
“Sorry to disappoint you.”
“Don’t be. I’m not.”
Ward said nothing.
“Well, sorry to have kept you.” The Doctor gallantly doffed his hat to Moira and began marching down the street. “Come along, Ace!”
“Bye!” Ace called over her shoulder, hurrying to catch up. At this point she could only guess what Cathan Ward and his niece were thinking. As it stood she couldn’t help them. The Doctor, as always, hadn’t given her a clue as to what was going on.
Totally exasperated, she wondered again why expecting the Doctor to explain himself was such a novel concept.
“That’s the Doctor,” Moira said, stating a fact rather than a question.
“So it would seem.”
“Strange little man. He doesn’t seem very impressive.”
“Appearances can be deceiving,” Ward smiled ironically. “You should know that.”
“I liked Ace though.”
“I wonder why?”
Moira ignored that sally with well-practiced dignity. “You could have tried being more friendly.”
“Friendly!” he glared at his companion incredulously. “Girl, he may be partially responsible for what happened. Or have you forgotten?”
“You’re stretching it. Your mother said he was as much a victim as she was. Ace corroborates it.”
“Perhaps,” he admitted sullenly, leaning up against the car door with his arms crossed. “Perhaps not. She said a lot of things.”
“Why are we doing this?”
“The gear, silly.” She shook her head, indicating the tanks in the back of the rover. “You have no intention of doing any diving. As if we’d have time.”
“Why not speak a little louder?” he snapped, getting in behind the wheel and slamming the door. “I’m sure old Morris down the street didn’t hear you!”
The vehicle rocked as Moira threw herself huffily into the passenger seat. “Chill, old man. You know what I mean.”
Ward sighed, relenting. “Appearances, girl. When it hits the fan…” he smiled grimly, dark eyes shadowed, “…and it will hit the fan, I promise you, I don’t need the good people of Wheardham asking questions.”
“And if you came home and didn’t check out your precious caves…”
“People would talk,” he finished. “The last thing we need is any attention focused on the family Ward.”
“Especially you,” Moira added softly.
“You’re not the only one with a stake in this. I’m…”
“Yes, yes,” Ward sighed. A bit over dramatically, Moira thought. “The last born daughter.” He reached down and started the engine. “You’ve never let me forget.”
Moira smiled at him fondly. “Not since I was eighteen and knew I was the one.”
“You make it sound so very mythical.”
If Moira caught the faint hint of bitter anger in his voice, she gave no indication. “Isn’t it?” she asked.
Ward had no reply. Moira made no comment on his clenched jaw or his hands gripping the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles had turned white. She was too busy watching the Doctor and Ace slowly disappear down the street.
“He knew you,” she said, carefully gauging Ward’s reaction.
“How could he? We’ve never met.”
“Oh, you’ve met. He’s just never met you.”
“And therein lays my problem,” Ward whispered softly, obviously troubled.
Moira reached over and took his hand, squeezing it gently. “Our problem,” she pointed out. “You have a family, remember?”
“Hmmm.” He put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb. “Speaking of family, are the boys in place?”
“Ready and waiting. It’s just a matter of time.”
This time Moira did catch some of the anger hidden in his voice. But when she looked at him sharply, his features were as unreadable as always. It was just Uncle Cathan concentrating on his driving. Marking it down to tension, she decided to ignore it.
“He is right though,” she said, looking up at the sky.
Ward knew she was referring to the Doctor. “About what?”
“There is a storm coming.”
“Are you going to tell me what that was all about?” Ace asked the Doctor. She took a bite of her sandwich and watched as he fiddled with the Delta particle scanner in his lap.
The fact that they were in a restaurant was a minor victory on her part. Ace had long ago come to the conclusion that the Doctor only ate for appearances sake, leaving it up to his companions to cajole him into a hunt for food or expire from hunger.
With the Doctor, food and answers seemed to be mutually exclusive.
“What was what all about?” he muttered, totally preoccupied.
“Come off it, Professor!” Ace complained. “You know what I mean!”
It was like pulling teeth!
“Oh, that. I thought I knew him. Still do for that matter,” he shrugged. “It’ll come to me. It always does. Eventually.” Obviously frustrated, he shoved the scanner into one of his bottomless pockets.
As answers go, it was better than most. Lately her friend had been a little more forthcoming with his explanations, a little less dark and mysterious. Not by much, but maybe he was starting to look at her like an adult, not a lost teenager who needed to be carefully spoon-fed every shred of information.
Ace wasn’t about to stop looking over her shoulder though. “Anything new?” she asked.
“Temporal flux is still building.”
As if she’d know what that meant. “Not good?” She swallowed and took another bite of her sandwich.
“Definitely not good.” The Doctor eyed her piranha like feeding tactics warily. “It could be a time loop closure, or a cusp. The readings, however, are far too chaotic for either.”
No jokes. No humorous asides with a twinkle in his eye.
This was serious.
“I understand about time loops…”
The Doctor simply raised a skeptical eyebrow, mentally counting her fingers as she attacked another sandwich.
“Okay, okay!” Ace admitted. “I have a layman’s understanding of time loops. So what’s a cusp? A temporal tooth that needs pulling?”
He didn’t laugh. Ace winced. The Doctor was wearing his lecture face. In all likelihood there was going to be a test afterwards and she had no way to take notes.
“Hardly a tooth,” he said. “A cusp is also defined as a transitional first or last part of an event or action.”
“Still sounds like a tooth.”
The Doctor leaned back in his chair. “In temporal terms a cusp is a moment in the time stream where an action, individual or group, creates an event around which multiple time lines are centered or conclude. As the definition implies, that event is a grounding point in history. It could be something cataclysmic, or a simple choice.”
“Like a bird eating the wrong bug?”
“Nothing quite so mundane,” the Doctor laughed, but not unkindly. “While important to the bird or the unfortunate grasshopper, that choice has very little affect on the universe around it.”
Ace ate quietly for a few minutes. As events go, this one was as rare as any. The Doctor was quietly lecturing her on a subject without someone, or something, shooting at them. When the cloister bell had rung and the TARDIS brought them here, his usual frantic activity had precluded any type of explanation. He had gathered up his umbrella and the scanner and bounded out of the TARDIS without even checking to see where they were.
The cloister bell she understood. This was serious, apparently something every Time Lord, the Doctor included, was duty bound to investigate. It wasn’t often that her friend bent over backwards to obey the rules.
Another rare event.
Swallowing, she asked, “So I could go back in time, crush a butterfly, and not really affect anything in the future, right?” She remembered reading that in a story somewhere.
“Exactly!” he said, beaming at her proudly. “If, however, you decided to convince the first two single cell creatures on this planet that combining their DNA wasn’t really worth the effort…”
“You’d change all the history of Earth!” Ace finished. “Wicked!”
“Very. And also practically impossible. A cusp is a fixed point in time. To change it, you would have to alter the thousands, if not millions, of smaller events preceding it.”
The Doctor’s expression became thoughtful, almost nostalgic. “Temporal cusps were one of my favorite areas of study at the Academy. Identifying and mapping one is considered quite a prize.”
Ace reached for the last sandwich, not even bothering to ask her companion if he wanted it. “So, if this is a cusp, it isn’t mapped, ‘cause you’d know if it were, right?”
The Doctor nodded.
“And if it’s a time loop, you wouldn’t know ‘cause those just happen, right?”
“That’s it then. It’s a cusp.”
“How,” he asked carefully, “did you come to that conclusion?”
Ace’s smile was pure evil. “You-Don’t-Know. That’s got to be a momentous event.”
The Doctor was speechless, in Ace’s opinion another unique occurrence. His expression, comical to say the least, switched quickly from irate, to incredulous, then finally to chagrin.
Definitely worth the shot.
And she didn’t even have to take notes.
He tapped his pocket. “These readings still indicate something far too chaotic to be either,” he pointed out with wounded dignity.
Ace shrugged. “So maybe it’s a big cusp, or a big loop. Or maybe both at the same time. Couldn’t that be it?”
Ace almost dropped her sandwich. “Really?”
It was the Doctor’s turn to grin wickedly. “Or it could be a massive case of temporal indigestion.” He watched as Ace bit savagely into the sandwich. “Which you’re going to have if you keep eating like that,” he added. “Slow down!”
“I’m hungry! You may not need to eat regular…”
The Doctor merely grunted.
“…but I do!” she finished indignantly, swallowing and brushing the crumbs off her hands. “I think you forget that sometimes. Keep this up and I’ll have to start carrying rations.”
“Won’t the nitro spoil it?” he asked sweetly.
Ace never saw the trap. “No, the nitro’s sealed in…Hey! You know I don’t…”
The Doctor reached across the table and tweaked her nose. “Don’t protest too loudly, Eliza.”
Ace sighed heavily. Some things never changed.
“Can I get you anything else?”
Ace turned to the waiter, thankful for any interruption at this point. “Yes, please…”
“No.” The Doctor placed a handful of coins on the table and stood up.
“Ace!” He pulled her firmly out of her chair, “Places to go? People to see? Time waits for no one.”
“Most people,” Ace muttered sullenly, scrambling for her pack and following him towards the door. Most people got to eat, too.
Shrugging into her pack, she paused before following him out. Like most small towns and villages, there was a community bulletin board next to the exit. One particular notice, centered on the board, caught her eye. Since there was more than one, she reached out and took one down.
It was a missing person notice.
Five faces stared back at her. Five young women, seemingly no older than she was, gone missing over the past year. They were none of them exceptionally pretty or striking. Just normal, happy faces, most of them smiling at the camera. The names meant nothing to Ace, just words on paper. She didn’t care about the phone number or the people to contact should she recognize or have any information.
Just the faces.
Five missing faces.
Had mum done this? Pinned up photos in the hopeless attempt to gain some comfort, some link to her own missing daughter? Worry?
It wasn’t a question Ace wanted answered.
She bolted out the door, flyer in hand, and ran squarely into a heavily cologned chest that did not belong to the Doctor. Big hands –searching hands- took her by the shoulders and tried to pull her closer.
Ace wrenched herself loose, slipping her pack off her shoulders and ready to swing it and swing hard. She instantly hated the man who smiled at her. He was handsome and knew it. A blonde Galahad with Hollywood blue eyes and a build he obviously spent a lot of time perfecting. Ace bristled as his eyes arrogantly slid over her body. His smile, which the average air-headed twit probably found inviting, struck Ace as oily and repulsive. What he wanted was obvious.
What he was going to get was an entirely different story.
“No rush,” he said with a patented grin. “You’re new here, right? No problem. I could show you around.”
That line would have got him laughed out of the gang back home. “No thanks,” Ace said through gritted teeth. “I got plans.”
God, that return wasn’t much better!
Galahad’s attempted shrug came off as simple over acting. “Your loss.”
Ace could live with that.
“Girl like you, alone…”
His insult was transparent. Girl like me! That did it! Ace swung her pack over her shoulder, ready to let fly.
Only to have it seized by the Doctor, spoiling what had promised to be a truly gratifying study in the laws of motion. Pulling the pack from her grasp, he took her by the shoulder and looked her in the eye. “Ace!”
Her name, said in that familiar low and hypnotic tone, brought her back to earth.
Then Galahad spoiled it. “You got spirit. I like that.”
The Doctor grabbed Ace and held her back. The level glare he gave Galahad was guaranteed to melt rock. Even a brainless troglodyte could recognize the threat.
Which he did.
“No problem.” It seemed to be his favorite line. “You change your mind, look me up. The name’s Delaney. Philip Delaney.” He leered and sauntered off, raking Ace with one last oily glance.
The Doctor’s hand went over Ace’s mouth, silencing the stream of invective while he seriously considered letting her go. But his discretion, for once, won out. She struggled but he held firm. When he judged the cretin safely out of range he released her. For the moment he held on to her pack.
And the nitro.
“That,” he commented dryly, “is a young man in serious need of what I believe you call a reality check.”
“So why’d you stop me!” Ace sputtered.
“Ace, as much as you would have enjoyed it, we have a job to do. While I’m sure he deserved it, having you arrested for assault with intent is not going to help.” He silently thanked the myriad gods of space and time that Ace and Leela had never met, at least not in his TARDIS. It and the universe would have never survived.
He would never have survived with his sanity intact.
“Are you finished?” he asked, handing her the pack. “Really Ace, sometimes you’re more fun to watch than American wrestling.”
Ace couldn’t help but laugh as she shouldered the pack. “Yeah, I’m finished. Oh, here. Galahad almost made me forget.” She handed him the flyer.
The Doctor only glanced at it, but Ace knew he had read the whole thing. He carefully folded it and slipped it into his pocket, never once taking his eyes off his companion. She couldn’t hide from those eyes. Big girl, little girl, it didn’t matter. He knew. The guilt. The questions that needed to be answered. The trip they were going to have to make.
Oh, he would take her home, already had in fact. But not for this. Right or wrong, she was going to have to confront her mother. This was one young lady who wasn’t missing; only mislaid. The Doctor would be there to pick up the pieces, he was her friend after all, but the rest was up to her.
All Ace had to do was ask.
She kicked at an imaginary rock. “Sometimes life really gets to me, Doctor.”
He would. “Can’t we help?”
Knowing she was referring to the missing women, the Doctor shook his head. “We have bigger problems, Ace.”
“That’s cold, Doctor!” Ace said fiercely, taking some of her frustration out on her friend. “We only handle the big jobs, is that it? Just sweep the little ones under the rug?”
She regretted those words almost immediately. For one unguarded moment her companion’s eyes went bleak, tired, and old.
“We can’t save them all,” he said softly, walking off down the street.
We? Or I?
Ace caught up and slipped her arm into his. “The big picture. It stinks.”
The Doctor didn’t bother to argue. “Yes, it does. But it may be a far more pertinent view than you think.” He began to tick off the points on one hand. “Fact: Wheardham is the focus of some very impressive temporal activity. Fact: Over a year ago five young women went missing under what I can only assume were mysterious circumstances.”
“Isn’t it always?”
He stopped abruptly, taking a deep breath. “Fact: There is a man in this town whom I may or may not know, or did know, or will know. I can’t be sure.” He turned to Ace, eyes intent and expectant, “Conclusion?”
“Too many coincidences?”
The Doctor nodded. “Far too many. And those are only the ones we’ve noticed. If this is indeed a cusp, then it’s only to be expected.”
Ace thought about that before responding. It was getting deep, but she was pretty sure she could still find the bottom. “You mean, with all the time lines coming together it’ll seem like everything is happening at once?” she offered carefully, watching the Doctor’s reaction. “Only it’s not a coincidence, right? Just everything moving toward that one point in time, almost piling up on each other in the process.”
“Very good, Ace!” The Doctor resisted the urge to ruffle her hair. She was getting a little old for that.
Ace wouldn’t have minded in the least. “But I thought you said the readings weren’t right?”
“I’m beginning to wonder about that. Even our being here may be a part of it.”
“Even Sir Galahad. I just don’t know!” He held up his hand, forestalling any comment. “Don’t say it,” he warned.
Ace grinned. “So where to now?” she asked.
He pulled the scanner from his pocket. “We follow the bread crumbs. This will lead us to the focus. Once there, we wait and watch. At this point, there’s not much else we can do.”
“Of course we walk!” He laughed at her forlorn expression and gave her a small hug. “Did you actually think, with all this activity, the vortex in flux, that I could accurately pilot the TARDIS on such a small hop?”
“And you were doing so well.”
Ace, wisely, made no further comment. Arm in arm, they headed off down the street. This round went to the Doctor. To the northwest, the storm slowly built. The dark clouds were rolling higher into the sky, oblivious to the events below.
Or all too much a part of it.
Two young men watched the Doctor and Ace, noting their progress. Nobody paid the boys any attention, or questioned them. They were given the occasional smile or nod of greeting and that was all. They were known in Wheardham, as was most of their family. Separated by only a year and a half in age, Erik and Daniel Ward weren’t exceptionally high-spirited. Their uncle generally kept them in line.
Erik visibly relaxed. “That was close.”
“She almost killed him,” Daniel responded. “What if she’d seriously hurt him?”
“We didn’t know that.”
“Didn’t we?” Erik asked innocently.
Daniel ground his teeth. “Stop that!”
“You started it!”
This was the sort of thing that drove their family insane and was known to go on for some considerable time. Trial and Error as they were respectively known by their loving, if long suffering family, were close enough in age, temperament, and personality to be twins. Their arguments reflected this.
Erik, wisely, chose to end it. “He is a slug though.”
Daniel didn’t need to ask whom he was talking about. “Moira’s going to have fun.”
Erik’s smile was predatory. “And we’ll have ringside seats.”
“And probably have to clean up the mess.”
“There is that.”
Daniel shrugged. “Contact Uncle Cathan?” he asked.
“Then we wait.” Daniel’s tone was sour. Waiting was something that was completely alien to his nature.
Erik wasn’t familiar with it either. “And watch,” he added.
A breeze picked up, carrying with it the smell of rain and the promise of lightning. Both young men regarded the darkening afternoon sky with an almost juvenile expectation.
“Storm’s coming,” Daniel observed.
“Gonna be a big one.”
“As if you didn’t know.”
They had been walking for nearly an hour, relative that is. The Doctor, to Ace’s eternal disgust, showed no sign of fatigue and maintained his brisk pace with the occasional comment on the local floral and fauna. Even the coming storm didn’t seem to bother him. Ace, with or without the Doctor’s witty travelogue, was rapidly reaching the end of her tether.
“Are you sure we couldn’t be doing this in the TARDIS?” she asked.
“Really, Ace. A little exercise wouldn’t hurt you.”
Ace liked the Doctor. Truly. Friend, mentor and father figure. A manipulative git at times, but he was her git. But someday, somewhen, he would get some of his own back. “How much further is it?” she asked in time honored, travel weary tradition. Ace was rather proud her voice held no hint of a whine.
“Only a mile or so.”
“You said that ‘bout a mile back.”
The Doctor shook the scanner, which obligingly gave off with a weak, protesting beep. “Perhaps this does need a bit of calibrating.”
“Great!” She chose an old stone road-marker and sat down, pulling off one of her boots. “Oi, Professor!” she called, turning the boot over and dumping out a rock the size of the Hope diamond. “Break time?”
He didn’t answer, but to Ace’s relief he did stop and turn back. A gust of wind attempted to steal his hat, drawing her attention to the rapidly declining state of the weather. Things just couldn’t be any better. First a storm in the vortex and then a storm in the real world. What more could possibly go wrong?
For once Ace was glad the Doctor carried that silly umbrella. From the looks of things they were going to need it. She slipped her boot back on and began to tie up the laces. “Are you sure about this, Doctor?”
“The readings are increasing exponentially the closer we get,” the Doctor replied defensively.
“Closer to what? We’re out in the middle of nowhere!”
Calling it nowhere was actually being kind. The paved road they’d been following had turned into a rough farm track about two miles back. The countryside was a pastoral, gently hilled, tree covered paradise.
It was peaceful.
“There’s nothing here, Doctor.” Ace pointed an accusing finger at the scanner. “Your little toy has to be broken. The storm’s blowing its pathetic little circuits.”
Insulting his precious gadgets was one way of getting the Doctor’s attention.
Protectively clutching the offended party, he protested, “It’s not the scanner’s fault. Coincidence Ace, remember?”
“Yeah, no such thing. I get it,” Ace muttered sullenly. “But what could happen out here? A comet strike? Dalek attack?” She knew she was being unreasonable, but the Doctor just seemed to inspire these fits of flippancy. “An invasion of the Hyperborean-Bean-Eaters from Gas-Ex Five?”
The Doctor wasn’t smiling. “Or maybe the sudden realization that the Earth is indeed flat, black is white, the shortest distance between two points actually is a straight line and all the rest is just the result of one irritated young lady’s over active imagination?”
Ace should have known she couldn’t out prattle the master.
“I’m here,” he pointed out. “You’re here.”
“We’re missing two wise men, Doctor.”
“Ace!” He reached down and pulled her to her feet, trying to make her understand. “Something is going to happen. What, why, when or where I have no absolutely no idea. Time and tide are leading us. Like it or not, circumstance will make sure that all the players are there for the grand event.”
Ace wasn’t sure she liked that idea. Being manipulated by the Doctor –for her own good of course- was bad enough. But the thought of some omniscient, faceless and nameless force of nature rolling her down hill like an out of control boulder left her feeling just a bit queasy. Give the Doctor some credit, at least he was there to catch her when she fell.
Most of the time.
Zipping up her jacket against the rising wind, she asked, “We’re a part of it then?”
“I no longer believe there’s any doubt.”
No chance, no chance at all. Ace took a deep breath. “Okay, fine. So we’re a part of it. Why doesn’t time and circumstance just give us a lift? My feet hurt.”
The Doctor groaned. “Ace…”
A little beat up old jeep, held together by spit and prayer, came bouncing down the road. Clanging to a stop, Miss Marple’s twin sister poked her head out the window and gave them the kind of smile that went beautifully with tea and Sundays.
“Hello. Do you need a lift?”
There he was, coming out of the pub. If not already drunk he was probably more than halfway there. Either way, he wouldn’t show it. Nothing ever marred that perfect, golden exterior. The perfect hair, the perfect body. Only the mind was left wanting, empty, without a conscience and any trace of morals.
Philip Delaney was perfect all right.
The perfect killer.
Oh, the law had believed him. The village council. The giggling, twittering mass of brainless females who followed his every move believed him. He was harmless. He only broke hearts, not bodies.
Her daughter had believed him, even after the first woman had gone missing.
That same daughter had married him.
The daughter who was now missing.
The daughter she hoped was still alive, still a part of this world, still capable of laughing and crying. Capable of shouting at her till she was breathless and challenging her every word and warning, never listening.
A futile hope that had died months ago.
She had gone to the law, told them her suspicions. He had an alibi for all the missing women, including his wife. He was anywhere but here. Where he got the money for his new van, nobody asked. What he was doing, nobody asked. Nobody cared.
Except one determined mother.
She gripped the steering wheel of her car tighter as he opened the door to his van and got in. It all ended here. No more questions, no more waiting. If she had to follow him through hell and back, so be it.
The van pulled away from the curb, slipping into the late afternoon traffic and headed out of town. She carefully followed. A few stray drops of rain spattered against the windscreen of her car. A distant peel of thunder echoed the promise of things to come. With luck, Philip would be more concerned about the storm than what was in his rearview mirror.
With luck, she would have her answers.
“They’re here,” Moira said, watching through a pair of binoculars as the Doctor and Ace got out of the jeep. She handed the binoculars to Ward. They were on a hill about a mile from the subjects. A copse of trees sheltered them both from the rain and prying eyes.
Ward adjusted the lenses and looked for himself. “Does that vehicle belong to who I think it does?”
“At her age?” He handed the glasses back to Moira. “Picking up hitchhikers?”
“Look who’s talking about age!” Moira laughed, shaking her head. “That’s our Edna for you. Besides, Ace and the Doctor wouldn’t be hitchhiking, would they?”
“They wouldn’t have to. Edna hunts for lost souls. She probably watched them walk out of the village, just waiting for the perfect opportunity to offer them a lift. She wouldn’t be able to resist.”
Lifting the glasses to her eyes, Moira watched as the rickety jeep bounced off, leaving the two travelers alone in the small, shallow valley. “The poor dears,” she said, tisking sympathetically. “They’re probably comatose by now. What is it this week?”
Ward shuddered. “Her gallstones.”
He sat down on the open bed of the rover, grimacing as he rubbed his knee. Moira noticed, but said nothing. That knee was a very touchy subject. By general rule and unwritten family law it was left unmentioned and unseen. Breaking those rules was guaranteed to set him off.
Ward glanced up and she quickly looked away. Even a concerned look would twist his temper. The last thing they needed was the old man going cranky.
A cell phone began beeping insistently. Ward pulled it out of his jacket pocket and tossed it negligently to Moira. “You answer it,” he growled. “I’m not in the mood to deal with them right now.”
Deftly catching it, Moira sighed.
He was cranky already.
Bringing the phone to her ear, she answered. “Moira.” She listened for barely a minute, her expression focused and serious, then nodded. “Right. You know the drill.” Breaking the connection, she tossed it back to Ward. “That was Kevin. Philip is on his way here. Apparently, Megan Cleary is following him.”
That bit of information brought Ward’s head up sharply, his knee forgotten. “And he hasn’t noticed?”
Moira snorted derisively. “That over heated prick wouldn’t notice an elephant if it followed him into a public urinal.” She paused, becoming speculative. “I had wondered how she got here.”
“Mother certainly didn’t know,” he muttered, glancing at his watch. “Where are your brothers? They should be here by now.”
“They’ll be here,” she told him. “They know what’s at stake. We all do. We’ll be ready, don’t worry.”
“You had better be.”
So much for trying to placate him. “Counting Philip, there’ll be only the two of them to deal with. We really don’t need the boys.”
Ward turned away, checking for something in the back of the rover. Moira didn’t see the tense line of his jaw or the tight fist he made to calm his shaking hand. “As you’re so fond of reminding me, girl, Philip is your problem.”
“Right,” she smiled.
It was a pure, predatory smile that raised the hackles on the back of his neck. This was not the little girl he used to bounce on his knee and tell stories to.
Ward blinked. “You’re beginning to worry me, Moira.”
The Doctor was beginning to worry Ace.
He was waving his scanner about, muttering to himself and kicking at small inoffensive rocks and bushes that got in his way. Whatever the scanner was telling him he didn’t like. Ace half expected him to throw it to the ground and stomp on it in a fit of pique. His faithful little gadget seemed to have betrayed him.
That ride hadn’t helped. While appreciated, Ace felt having to listen to the old woman prattle on about her gallstones for twenty minutes was too high a price to pay just to save her aching feet. Even the Doctor’s patience had been pushed to the limit.
And this place!
All this little scene needed was what’s-her-name bursting in and singing the Sound of Music! It was a stage manager’s dream. Of course the sky wasn’t blue, more gray and black, but they could fix that up with a little computer wizardry.
The Doctor seemed fascinated with a small hill. Or was it a hill? It looked like an old barrow. Ace remembered reading about them when she was in school. The few times she actually went to history class anyway.
Muttering something unintelligible, the Doctor shook the scanner.
Time to get some answers. “Doctor?” Ace called.
He fiddled with a few buttons.
Whatever he said had a lot of syllables.
“It’s relaxing.” Big lie there.
He shook the scanner again. The poor thing’s beeping was becoming positively frantic.
The Doctor ignored her.
“Doctor!” Ace marched up and grabbed him by the arm. “It’s getting dark, there is nothing here…” A fat drop of rain –deliberately aimed by the elements she felt sure- smacked her right in the eye. “…and it’s starting to rain.”
He pulled his arm out of her grasp. “This can’t be right!”
“What?” Ace asked. A Doctor without answers had rapidly lost its entertainment value. This was starting to get scary.
“The readings!” He brandished the scanner like a club. “This makes absolutely no sense what-so-ever!”
“You said that! It’s chaotic, wrong, twisted. It’s…”
Whoa! Reality check. Ace jumped as the lightning flashed and thunder burst overhead. She silently complimented the stage manager. “Maybe it’s your lot,” she pointed out. “The Time Lords. You told me this cusp thingie was…”
“The TARDIS!” He pointed at the barrow.
Ace was confused. “In the barrow?”
“It is the barrow!”
He waved her off impatiently. “Ace, don’t start with me.”
They both winced as a pair of headlights flashed into their eyes as a van pulled up over the lip of the hill and rolled towards them. Ace felt like screaming. She’d heard it could be very therapeutic.
“What is it with this place?” she demanded. “Doesn’t anybody around here stay home on a rainy night?”
“Damn!” Ward had switched from the binoculars to a pair of night scopes. “It’s Philip!”
Moira grabbed the scopes out of his hands. If he’d had the strap around his neck she probably would have taken his head off. It only took her a moment to focus. “Hide you idiots!”
“Hide?” Ward asked incredulously. “Where? Of all the asinine, stupid…”
“They just walked right up! He has to know they’re there!”
“If he doesn’t, Philip certainly does.”
Moira’s curse was very unladylike and unquestionably one her mother would not approve of. “Was it supposed to happen this way?”
“How should I know!” he snapped, throwing his arms up. “Mother didn’t know!”
“Calm down! It obviously happened this way, or it wouldn’t have happened in the first place!”
“That makes a great deal of sense!” Ward barked, cranky giving way to sarcasm.
Moira closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I have a headache,” she muttered.
Both Ace and the Doctor had their hands up, shielding their eyes from the glare of the headlights. Whoever was driving hadn’t turned them off and showed no intention of doing so. A door slammed and the squelch of boots on wet turf soon became a tall figure stepping into the light. It cut the glare just enough to see who it was.
Ace relaxed. It was Galahad.
Then she stiffened when she saw what he had in his hand.
The Doctor hadn’t noticed. “It would appear to be your playmate,” he commented dryly.
Careful not to make any sudden movements, Ace reached over and tugged gently on her companion’s coat sleeve. “Doctor?” she whispered.
“My playmate has a gun.”
Philip Delaney smiled. “Ain’t this cozy,” he drawled, a juvenile attempt at menace.
The Doctor looked at him, then at the gun and very rapidly came to one, inescapable conclusion. “This is getting out of hand,” he muttered.
“This is getting out of hand,” Ward growled.
“As if we had any control over what happens,” Moira pointed out testily.
“I should have guessed!”
“With what information? We only know what she told us.”
A car pulled up behind the rover. Recognizing the two drivers, Moira cursed. Another word her mother wouldn’t like. Much as she loved her brothers, if they were on form it was really going to send Ward over the edge.
They weren’t going to do her temper much good either.
Time to distract him. “Don’t panic!”
Ward drew himself up and glared at her, dark eyes glinting dangerously. “I-Do-Not-Panic!” he said slowly and succinctly.
“Good. Then prepare to become annoyed.”
“Who panics?” Erik asked, joining the party.
“Not me.” Daniel wasn’t far behind.
It was Moira’s turn to glare, accusingly, at her uncle. “You had to pick them.”
“They’re your brothers. It’s their right to be here as well as yours.”
“You’re the one who fed them Heinlein intravenously.”
Erik had taken the scopes from her and was busy watching the action down near the barrow. “Philip’s got them all right. Since when did he know which end of a gun was dangerous?” He handed the scopes to his brother.
“Probably shot himself in the foot once,” Daniel said, bringing the scopes up to his eyes. “Even Philip would remember that. He’s taking them towards the barrow. The hillside just opened up!”
“Give me those!” Erik snatched the scopes. “It’s a door. How did he do that?”
Ward sighed. Bringing them may not have been the greatest idea. “Boys, it’s not really the barrow,” he lectured patiently. “Remember?”
Erik was insulted. “Of course we remember.”
“Just speaking out loud,” Daniel added. Somehow he had got the scopes back. “Philip’s taking them inside. Oh man! He just gave the Doctor a shot to the kidneys!” He looked back at Ward. “He does have kidneys, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, just not in the usual place.”
“Ace is pissed.” Erik had the scopes now. “If she gets her hands on him there won’t be much left for you, sister dear. Are you sure you won’t share?”
Moira angrily snatched the scopes from his hand. “Not on your life little brother.” She watched as Ace, forced to a stand off, helped her companion inside, followed by the grinning Philip. “The bastard’s mine. You can have what’s left.”
“As always, we get the scraps,” Erik commiserated with his brother.
“Shameful. Insulting. We’re growing boys after all.”
Ward had his head in one hand, the fingers massaging his temple. “Children!” he snapped.
The children jumped. None of them had ever heard that soft, dangerous tone in his voice before. Their uncle could be sharp, testy and sarcastic. But this was something they were not used to. It was unnerving.
And a little frightening.
Ward hooked his thumb back towards the rover. “Play time is over. Gear up.”
“Kevin’s not here,” Moira pointed out.
“He will be.”
“Are we ready for this?”
If the question surprised him, Ward gave no sign. “Do we have a choice?” He handed her a holstered gun, remembering a time when he had once handed her a toy doll. He watched her pull the gun out, expertly check the clip and chamber, then flip the safety before putting it back. The image replaced his cold anger with a deep sadness.
The boys, young men really, were equally expert, which only deepened his gloom.
This sudden change of mood left Moira bewildered.
Mistaking her confusion for fear, Ward reached out and reassuringly touched his niece’s cheek. “Moira,” he told her gently, “It’s not what’s happening now that really concerns us. You know that. It’s what comes next.”
Daniel nodded. “Right.”
There were no jokes from his brother. “We have a promise to keep.”
“A score to settle.”
Moira almost threw the scopes at them. “I know that!”
“Patience, girl,” Ward said.
“Don’t patronize me, old man!”
“I wouldn’t dare.”
“Of course not.” Daniel looked at his brother.
“Such an action would be painful,” Erik chipped in.
“If not fatal.”
They all turned at the sound of an approaching motorcycle. It was Kevin. His leathers were glistening wet from the rain with mud spattered up his boots and legs. Ward glanced up at the sky. Sheltered as they were by the trees, he hadn’t really noticed the increase in rainfall. Except for those earlier cracks of thunder and lightning, it had been quiet, almost as if the storm had been saving its energy for one great blow.
He almost laughed. Standing under a tree in a lightning storm wasn’t one of the safest pursuits in the world.
It was the least of his worries.
They were all here.
“All right children. Your cousin’s here, that means Mrs. Cleary isn’t far behind.” Who had the nightscopes? Erik. Ward didn’t bother asking how. Snapping his fingers, he motioned his nephew to check the barrow.
Erik obediently complied. “Here she comes,” he reported. “Right on schedule.”
“What schedule?” Daniel asked.
“Don’t push it!”
A crack of lightning only served to illustrate Ward’s fraying temper. “Boys,” he growled.
Kevin, already having kited himself up at the rover, tapped Moira on the shoulder. “Have I missed something?” he asked innocently.
Making a mental note to get them one for Christmas, Moira took the scopes from Erik, again, and scanned the barrow. “Wonderful!” Her voice held equal parts disgust and thankful surprise.
“Now what?” Ward did not sound happy.
Moira just handed the scopes back to Erik.
Her brother smiled. “Perfect.” He handed them to Daniel.
“Serendipitous.” The scopes went to Kevin.
“So that’s how she got in.”
Ward began counting backwards from a hundred. He only got to ninety-eight. “Children?” he asked sweetly. “Will someone answer me?”
Moira grinned. Stupidity did indeed have its rewards. “Guess we won’t be needing the keys after all,” she said. “Twit-zilla left the door open.”
The Doctor leaned on Ace, more to keep her in check than any need of support for himself. His side still throbbed painfully from Philip’s vicious rabbit punch, but that was the least of his worries. Ace had murder in her eyes. While Philip Delaney may not have been the human race’s most sterling example of intelligence, he did have a gun.
Ace versus a revolver. Not exactly the best of odds.
The Time Lord’s quick glance took in the console room they found themselves in. Generic and utilitarian, the lighting muted and yellow, it was really no different from his own machine. The Doctor made a mental note to try his hand at some creative interior decorating on his own TARDIS if they ever got out of this.
‘When they got out of this,’ he corrected himself.
The central console was partially dismantled, with wires spliced and jury rigged onto a cable that led off down the interior corridor. The Doctor wasn’t close enough to recognize what the owner was trying to do, but that it had to something to do with the threatened cusp he had no doubts.
Someone was playing a very dangerous game.
Ace staggered, almost taking the Doctor with her, as Philip yanked the dangling pack off her shoulder. Her angry lunge came to an abrupt halt when Philip raised the gun, his bully grin daring her to go further.
Wiping that grin off his face just made it to the top of her wish list.
She did stop though.
“Thought not,” Philip drawled. He negligently tossed the pack against the far wall.
Both Ace and the Doctor gasped as it hit the wall with a heavy thud, then a dull clang as it met the floor. Their collective release of breath was no less explosive than what might have happened. Meeting the Doctor’s gaze, Ace smiled weakly. His angry glare promised a future lecture on the merits of carrying around high explosives.
A very long lecture.
Philip never noticed a thing.
Gesturing with the gun, he forced them down the interior corridor, following the line of the cable. “This job has its perks,” he commented. “Got a bonus out of it this time though, didn’t I?”
Ace had very little doubts as to what he was hinting at. “Listen scumbag, if you think…” she felt the gun press into the small of her back.
“Don’t have to think, do I?”
“That much is obvious.”
The Doctor pushed himself between her and the gun, wincing at the sudden pain in his side. “Ace!” he barked, knowing it was a useless admonishment. The instant connection between Ace’s feelings and her vocal cords left very little room to contemplate future consequences. Tegan had been much the same.
The Doctor understood consequences; the gun was pointed at him now. It was a situation he was not unfamiliar with. He made sure to stay between the two of them as they headed further down the corridor.
Philip, it seemed, didn’t have the talent to play the silent captor. “He told me someone might come snooping.”
Ace turned, ready to ask the obvious question. She stopped when she saw the look on the Doctor’s face. His eyes had gone deep and unreadable; his mouth set in a grim line. Slowly, he shook his head. Ace knew what he meant.
That didn’t stop the Doctor. “He told you we’d be here, did he?” he asked, voice neutral, almost disinterested.
“Not you. Just somebody. He said it was inevitable.”
“Inevitable,” the Doctor laughed softly, humorlessly. “Why am I not surprised?”
Shielding her eyes from the rain and holding a flashlight, Megan Cleary got out of her car, careful not to slam the door. Not that it would have made much of a difference. There was Philip’s van with the lights still on. He couldn’t have gone far, not in this weather. Slamming the door or not, he would have heard.
Where was he?
She knew about the barrow, everyone in Wheardham did. It was nothing special. Some archeologists had expressed and interest in excavating a number of years ago but the property owners, Richard and Anne Ward, had refused permission. Had Philip found something? Was this where he had brought the bodies?
Alive or dead, was her daughter here?
Refusing to panic, she shone the light on the ground in front of the van and looked for something, anything that would give her and idea of where to start. It seemed silly really, almost too easy when she saw the imprints left in the wet turf by Philip’s heavy frame. The prints pointed directly towards the barrow.
Two hundred plus pounds of perfect muscle had turned out to be good for something after all.
“Is she in yet?” Moira asked.
Ward shook his head. “Not yet.”
The rain and lightning were playing merry hell with the scopes. Every stroke of lightning was a stab of pain in his eyes and the rain, which was starting to come down in sheets, wasn’t helping. He could barely make out Mrs. Cleary making her way towards the entrance to the barrow. Moira’s impatience only added to the problem. “We can’t rush this,” he told her sternly.
“Have patience,” Daniel added.
“Lots of patience,” Erik muttered.
Moira gritted her teeth.
Kevin thanked the Powers-That-Be he was from another branch of the family.
Ward wondered if it was possible to find a new one.
Illuminated in the beam of her flashlight, Megan had found the barrow entrance. It didn’t make sense. A perfect rectangular doorway set into the hillside that hadn’t been there before. It even cast the illusion of standing vertical against the slant of the hill behind it. Or was that just the lightning, the glare reflecting off the sheeting rain? Too many questions.
The answers, if they existed, didn’t matter.
Philip was in there.
Maybe her daughter.
A grieving mother, with nothing left to lose, made the only choice she could. Heaven or Hell, it made no difference. Going back for help was not an option. No one would listen.
She went in.
“She’s in.” Ward rubbed his eyes. That last stroke of lightning had nearly blinded him. He laid the scopes in the back of the rover and slammed the hatch. “Lets go.”
“Isn’t it too soon?” Moira asked, her usual confidence now uncertain.
“Will you make up you mind!” Ward snapped. “A minute ago you were ready to charge in there, no questions asked!”
His harsh attack startled his niece and the boys. These mercurial shifts in mood were putting them on edge. He had never rounded on them like that before, and certainly never with such venom.
“I’m nervous,” Moira stammered, wondering at the source of his anger. “And more than a little scared.”
“We all are,” Kevin added quietly. While not as familiar as Moira or her brothers with Ward’s moods, he too realized something was wrong.
Erik and Daniel, quiet for once, only nodded.
Ward sighed, staring down into the darkness surrounding the barrow. Of course the children were scared. What else could they be? They shouldn’t have been here in the first place. If it had been his choice, he would have done this alone, without their help. It wasn’t needed.
But the family had insisted. It was their right.
Nothing had been said about his rights.
And now they were scared.
“So am I,” he whispered.
Moira reached out and touched his arm, suddenly realizing the source of his anger. It wasn’t them. She should have known. “I’m sorry. With all that’s happened, all this time, we forget sometimes…”
“That it is not a game?” A flash of lightning revealed his smile. It was strained and bitter.
Moira recoiled as if she had been slapped.
Kevin, usually quiet and reserved, stepped forward angrily. “Sir, that’s a low blow, especially from you,” he responded vehemently. “More than anyone you should know what this means to the family. This was never a game.”
Ward nodded, He couldn’t chase them away.
So be it.
“No, it’s not a game,” he said. Looking over at Moira’s brothers, he asked, “Do you have anything to add?”
“Don’t need to,” Daniel answered.
“Kevin said it all,” was Erik’s response.
“So few words boys. My death wish fulfilled?”
“You’re not going to die!” Moira’s shout surprised them all.
Ward more than the others. “Moira, I have no intention…”
“Don’t lie to me! Don’t you think I’ve seen it? Mother warned me, but I didn’t believe her. You couldn’t possibly be so stupid!”
Ward said nothing, his expression hidden by the darkness.
“Look at me, old man! If I have to break the promise, then I break it. Philip can find his own way to Hell. You can fulfill your death wish somewhere else. But not here, not on my time!”
Ward neither confirmed nor denied her suspicions. Once again his face was a blank mask, his feelings hidden. “Are you finished?” he asked coldly.
Her audacity was daring. Children grew up so quickly. A pity their wisdom did not grow as swiftly. Let them believe what they wanted. What happened next would be their only resolution.
Ward prayed they would be happy with it.
“Then come along children, let's get this over with. Moira, you’re behind me. Kevin, middle. Erik, Daniel…God knows whichever one of you I put behind won’t stay there, so both of you bring up the rear. You will do what I say, when I say it. No questions. Is that understood?”
They all nodded their assent.
“We will finish this conversation.”
Moira smiled. “I’ll see to it.”
Leading the way Ward set off down the hill. Following behind in the order he had dictated his four companions moved quietly and expertly through the darkness and underbrush, ignoring the rain. Nothing more was said.
Only the storm spoke, its voice the wind and thunder, still keeping its secrets.
Despite the situation Ace was getting bored. A TARDIS corridor was a TARDIS corridor. Drab, unimaginative and drearily monotonous. Apparently Philip had exhausted his vocabulary and the Doctor had become strangely silent and grim. Not a good sign. He had guessed something and he didn’t like it.
And as usual, he wasn’t sharing.
When the corridor ended, Ace was the first one through. Stepping over the cable they had been following she entered a cluttered, equipment strewn lab. There was nothing she recognized, or at least nothing she had ever seen in the Doctor’s lab those few times she had snuck in to borrow a few chemicals for some fresh nitro. Five nearby tanks drew her attention. Through the clear, plexi-like material she could see that only one was empty. The other four contained something but she couldn’t quite make it out through the murky green liquid.
Ace wondered briefly why mad scientists always had to use a green motif for their decorating. Then her mind finally caught up with what her eyes had shown her. Only by turning and burying her face in the Doctor’s shoulder could she stifle the scream she felt building.
The Doctor held her tightly, trying in vain to calm her. He was fighting his own need to retch at the sight they had both seen. The tanks contained what was left of four women, their bodies horribly mutilated, limbs twisted at impossible angles, their skin bulging and sagging in all the wrong places.
And their faces.
Even in death those pathetic faces recorded the pain and suffering they had endured. The terror they had felt was permanently fixed in their wide-open eyes and gaping mouths. The cool, scientific part of the Doctor’s mind noted in passing that he had seen something like this before, though rarely, on Gallifrey. The resemblance to a failed regeneration was uncanny, though he knew it couldn’t be true. These poor females were human, not of his race.
The Doctor’s quick, sharp eyes marked the rest of the equipment. Oddly, he recognized most of it as being of Dalek manufacture. From the larger tanks to the smaller in-vitro growers and monitoring banks, it all bore the stamp of that brilliant and merciless race. The human manufactured bio-reactor, while unusual in itself, was made even more so by its very presence and its primitive nature.
Either through stupidity or familiarity, Philip had no reaction to the horrors around him. His hand remained steady on the gun that still covered Ace and the Doctor. Sheer stupidity was the Doctor’s guess.
Then the Time Lord spotted the dark cloaked figure that had been standing off to one side, as if to give them an unobstructed view of the Hell it had created. There was pride in the figure’s stance, and pure arrogance.
Something the Doctor found all too familiar.
Still holding Ace, he confronted his old enemy. “We both would seem to have a similar propensity for regarding our TARDIS as home.” The Doctor’s voice was pure acid.
The Master shuffled forward, his body hidden by the large voluminous cloak he wore. The question seemed to surprise him. “A far too simple a solution that hadn’t occurred to me until it was almost too late” His voice was low and grating.
As he came closer, the Doctor could see the changes that had been wrought on his features. The green cat eyes were still there, but his mouth could more correctly be called a muzzle, pushed forward with two sharp canines showing beneath his upper lip. His forehead had begun to slope backwards and the ears were large and pointed, reaching up towards the top of his head.
Even free from the Cheetah world, the transformation continued. What was underneath the cloak, the Doctor could only guess.
Ace risked taking a look, then quickly turned away. Her revulsion was obvious.
The Master noticed and smiled. “As you can see,” he waved a clawed hand at his face and body, “it didn’t do me much good.”
“Given your penchant for killing, I’m not surprised.”
“Really Doctor, you’ve as much blood on your hands as I do on mine. Is there a difference?”
“A very important one,” the Doctor responded defensively. That point had struck a little too close for comfort. “I don’t hunt.”
“Pity,” the Master almost purred. “The reo-virus’ affect on your lofty certainties would have been…revealing.”
Ace felt the Doctor stiffen beneath her hand. She looked into his eyes, but found no comfort. He gave her a reassuring squeeze, never taking his eyes off his adversary. There was more going on here than Ace could take in, leaving her confused and out of her depth.
“You’re certain it’s a reo-virus then?” the Doctor asked.
“Oh yes. Capable of over-whelming even Gallifreyan DNA.”
“Your DNA was hardly pure Gallifreyan.” The Doctor recalled his own brush with de-evolution. He had survived. Barely. The Master, it appeared, hadn’t been so lucky.
The renegade Time Lord’s laugh was more a guttural cough. “The Trakenite.” He shook his head. “My DNA was dominant.”
“Not dominant enough, apparently.”
Ace flinched at the anguished howl the Master let loose. If not for the Doctor’s reassuring arm about her shoulders she might have bolted. Holding her tightly, the Doctor avidly observed every nuance of his old enemy’s performance.
“Interesting,” was his only comment.
“Careful, Doctor! I can no longer be held responsible for my actions.”
“You never were.”
Like an animal, the Master cocked his head to one side and curled his lips back, showing a great deal of very long and very sharp teeth. Ace had seen that look before in a documentary about lions on the Serengeti.
When the lion was about to pounce on a poor, helpless zebra.
“Professor…” she whispered urgently.
“Not now, Ace!”
The Master, who seemed to have noticed her for the first time, appeared bewildered for a moment, as if he had expected someone else. Those green eyes narrowed suspiciously, observing her with a predatory intensity.
“Yes, my dear, not now,” he said, having found what he was looking for. “Delaney!”
Philip came to immediate attention. “Sir?”
The Doctor blinked, confused. “Sir?”
The Master didn’t hear. “Show the young lady to our other guest,” he commanded. “Let them console one another. She may prove useful. The Doctor and I have business that is best discussed uninterrupted.”
Ace yelped in pain and anger as Philip hauled her away by her braid. Philip’s anticipatory leer was as oily as ever. His one role in life was to play the bully, and he played it well.
“If he harms her in any way…” the Doctor roared, glaring at the Master. It had always amazed Ace that such a small frame was capable of such commanding volume.
The two enemies, locked in a silent combat of wills, were oblivious to their audience who waited fearfully for the outcome. The air was charged, electric, with neither opponent giving way.
Finally, it was the Master who relented. “Delaney,” he called, never once letting his gaze slip from the Doctor.
The Master curled his lip and growled.
“Keep your hands to yourself.”
Disappointed, but very much aware of the punishment disobedience would bring, Philip released Ace’s braid and grabbed her by the arm. Kicking and swearing, Ace was dragged back down the corridor.
“The complications of time and circumstance,” the Master said softly. His expression was almost relieved. “Satisfied?” he asked the Doctor with a sneer.
The Doctor smiled. “You are a mess, aren’t you?”
“What are you now? Gallifreyan? Trakenite? Feline? Or a hodge podge of the three? The reo-virus hasn’t left much of your genetic structure intact, has it? What’s left? You’re not even controlling Delaney, not like the old days. Fear is your only domination over him, that and appealing to his bullyboy nature. Or is it money? That’s quite a come down for you.”
“It is sufficient.”
“Is it?” the Doctor laughed, enjoying himself. It was quite pathetic what circumstance had left the Master with. “Tell me, do you still have the Rassilon Imprimature? Or is that gone now as well?”
“I can still pilot my TARDIS.”
“But for how long?”
The Master began to pace; his eyes darting around the lab like a caged animal. “Long enough to obtain what I needed,” he growled. “The human’s have provided the rest.”
“Have they? And the Daleks?” The Doctor waved his hand at the tanks and their grisly contents, “I somehow doubt they parted with that equipment willingly. Thievery tends to upset them and they’re not known for their forgiving natures. It’s like kicking an ant hill.”
Followed closely by the Master, he walked over to the small tank resting on the floor near the larger ones. Trying not to let the Master’s close proximity unnerve him, he regarded it clinically. Dalek manufacture again. The Master had definitely got himself on the tin pots most wanted list.
“An in-vitro tank. Trying your hand at a little cloning?”
That shot went completely wide of the mark.
The Master smiled secretively, back in control. “We both know it is beyond Dalek, or even Sontaran technology, to clone the complexity of true Gallifreyan DNA. Replicants are the best they can do. And a loom is quite…unobtainable at the moment.”
“Indeed. Your own existing DNA then?”
“Would hardly solve my problem.”
“Really Doctor. There was a time you wouldn’t have had to ask. Need I lecture?” He ran his hand down the clear plexi of one tank with that quiet, almost purr rumbling in his chest. “They had their uses.”
“They were living beings!”
“Were they? I hadn’t noticed.”
“Obviously. And that?” The Doctor pointed to the bio-reactor, his anger and revulsion barely contained. “Human manufacture if I’m not mistaken. Practicing a little black biology? You never were very good a bio-engineering.”
“I didn’t need to be. The reo-virus provided the solution. Ironic, really. Removing the feline gene codes and inserting others proved to be simplicity itself. A primitive life form, but readily adaptable.”
“Adaptable to what?”
The Doctor had lost control of the situation, if he had ever truly had it in the first place. The Master was playing with him, teasing him. Dangling the clues right in front of him and then dancing quickly back, laughing all the while. In-vitro tanks. Viral growth mediums. The human bodies. None of it made any sense.
Or did it?
He looked again at the bio-reactor, then back at the Master. The stunning realization of what the mad man was trying to do literally took his breath away. The possibilities were staggering and terrifying should something go wrong. Even humans, the sane ones anyway, avoided experimenting with any virus. And if they did, it was under far more stringent safety conditions than what he was seeing here.
The Doctor prayed he was wrong. “You’ve inserted your own DNA, created a new mutation. The material would have to be pure, uncorrupted, before your last regeneration. You wouldn’t risk Gallifrey, for the same reasons you couldn’t steal a Loom.” He noticed that sly, secretive smile on the Master’s face. “Or did you?”
“So many questions, Doctor. Am I to provide all the answers?”
Glaring, the Doctor said nothing.
Shrugging, the Master provided the answer. “Would it surprise you to learn your friends at UNIT decided to try their hand at recombinant DNA research? Ayelsbury was a bit more than a prison. I simply retrieved what was originally mine.”
“How many bodies did you leave behind?”
“Don’t preach, Doctor. It’s becoming quite stale.”
“You can’t clone. You can’t very well hope to cleanse your own system with the modified reo-virus. Even if it could hold all the information needed, which I doubt, what’s left of your genetic structure wouldn’t survive. The degeneration has gone too far. And pure Gallifreyan code is what you need. A new cycle of lives and an uncorrupted Rassilon Imprimature.”
The Doctor’s voice, powerful and commanding, dared him to deny the truth. “You want to be a Time Lord again.”
“I am a Time Lord!” the Master roared, lunging towards the Doctor. He contained himself only at the last moment with obvious effort. “I am a Time Lord,” he repeated in a more normal tone, unable to hide a hint of uncertainty.
“Not for long, if this life of yours ever was, and not at this rate of decay.”
“Decay which no longer applies.” The Master, always mercurial but now dangerously unstable as well, shifted moods again. That familiar, confident arrogance was back as he leaned forward and said, barely above a whisper, “Humans have found a way to cheat.”
“They always do,” the Doctor muttered disgustedly.
Animated now, fairly dancing with triumph, the Master gestured for the Doctor to follow. Reluctantly and knowing in his hearts what was to come, the Doctor complied. As he turned, the Master’s cloak parted, revealing the true extent of his transformation. He wore no shoes. His toes, clawed and elongated, had grown too long and cumbersome. The once noble figure now walked on limbs more suited for an animal that habitually ran on all fours, ankles up and back with the knees bent forward.
The Doctor tried to find some sympathy, but couldn’t.
Just rewards for a life ill spent.
Unaware of this silent judgment, the Master continued to gloat. “A quickened egg, with the nucleus removed before first division, replaced with my own pure, uncorrupted DNA, and a perfectly viable clone is created. With all my power, all my lives, intact!”
Abruptly halting, the Doctor stared in horror at the Master’s shuffling form. Then he looked back at the four pitiful humans in their cold, liquid graves. It was all there. The virus. The DNA. The humans. The evidence was incontrovertible. That the Master had betrayed one of the basic tenants of life could no longer be denied. Destari could do it, but was no longer alive, his research destroyed. So the Master had used the only tools fate and circumstance had left him.
The Doctor closed his eyes, a great heavy sadness clouding his soul. Reaching into his pocket, he found the flyer Ace had given him outside the diner. “There were five women,” he whispered brokenly. He turned, eyes piercing the Master with an ancient, condemning anger. “Five human women!” he stressed.
Refusing to meet that gaze, perhaps afraid, the Master only laughed. “And one who is no longer quite so…human. She survived. The others didn’t. How else could the egg support the full complexity of Gallifreyan DNA?”
“What have you done?”
“Insured my survival.”
“At-What-Cost!” the Doctor spat the words.
“The cost was negligible.” He laid his hand gently, almost lovingly, on what the Doctor recognized as another piece of stolen Dalek technology. It was an incubating creche. “The prize, everything.”
“The cost is a perversion! Hardly negligible!”
“And you’re not listening! You never did!”
“Is extinction what I want to hear?” Those cat green eyes flashed with annoyance. “My dear Doctor, our own race survives using bio-engineering techniques that are much the same.”
“Not at the expense of other races!”
“Don’t be naive,” the Master scoffed, voice full of derision. “The official histories may be dry, but surely even you have read between the lines. Or may I now add hypocrite to your list of achievements?”
Refusing to concur or deny, the histories had hinted at such atrocities, the Doctor clenched his fists and said through gritted teeth, “You can not succeed!”
How many times had he said that to this man? How many times had he watched as those prophetic words had proven to be true? Watched as the Master once again went down in-gloriously in defeat? What were the odds that just this once he could be wrong? The fury in the vortex. The approaching cusp. The myriad time lines coming together. Was that why he was here? To bear witness to the Master’s final triumph?
Defeat was not what now glowed in the Master’s eyes. “Not this time, Doctor. Your interference in no longer an issue. I can’t succeed? He threw those words right back, filled with a lifetime of thwarted malice. “My dear Doctor, I already have!”
With an exultant flourish, he reached down and pressed a switch on the creche with one clawed finger. His joy was barely contained as the lid slowly rose. The sound that emerged, recognized throughout humanoid space as one of life, love and future promise, only caused the Doctor’s shoulders to slump in despair.
It was the cry of a child.
“Watch it, Toerag!”
“Got yourself a mouth, girl.”
“Yeah?” Ace shot back sarcastically. It wasn’t the most brilliant observation. Given Philip’s already established level of intelligence, it was probably the best he could do. “Well, you got your orders. Or did you forget what the kitty said?”
“When the cat’s away…”
“Please! Can’t you come up with something new?” How many bad movies had this creep seen anyway? “The Master doesn’t like sharing his toys,” Ace pointed out, hoping to get gorilla-boy’s limited attention span back on track. Playing the vamp with him just wasn’t in the cards.
“I ain’t afraid of him.” Philip roughly pulled her to a stop in front of a door and reached for the handle. The gun was still pressed into Ace’s back.
Escape was Ace’s first priority. The Doctor needed her and the Master’s bullyboy wasn’t about to stop her.
It was now or never. “Then you’re stupider than you look. Nah, that would…”
Philip slammed her –none to gently- up against the wall. His thick arm went across her throat and the barrel of the gun pressed up underneath her chin.
Funny, Ace thought. This always seemed to work for the Doctor. She just didn’t seem to be pushing the right buttons. Noting the cold fury in his perfect blue eyes, she winced. He was going to say it; she could just feel it.
“That mouth is gonna get you in trouble.”
Ace groaned. “I’ve been told.”
Philip, gun still under her chin, brushed his fingers against her cheek.
Ace cringed. This was not going well.
Footsteps behind him erased Philip’s patented grin. Grabbing Ace and using her like a shield he whirled around. Guiltily, he looked back towards the lab, and excuse ready. It wasn’t the Master. Relieved, he checked the corridor leading to the console room.
Ace, half choked by the arm across her throat would have appreciated the look of comical shock that passed across her captor’s features when he saw Megan Cleary. As it was, she did see the triumphant anger on the older woman’s face as she glared hatefully at Philip.
That triumph became fear when he raised the gun and pointed it at her.
Megan turned and ran, her short-lived victory forgotten as she silently cursed her own stupidity. What had she expected? That Philip would simply admit his guilt and calmly turn himself in?
Time slowed, a phenomenon Ace was putting at the top of her Must ask the Doctor list, as Philip pulled the trigger. The cylinder rolled, the hammer came back, then it fell.
Philip swore and pulled the trigger again.
Ace, never one to let a good opportunity pass, sank her teeth into Philip’s wrist. She’d been a good girl she had, brushing and flossing twice a day. The coppery taste that flooded her mouth as those healthy teeth broke through skin almost made her gag.
Almost, but not quite.
Philip’s dramatic howl of pain was followed by an equally dramatic out-gasping of air as Ace drove her elbow into his stomach. Those over developed stomach muscles offered little defense against her desperate strength. Slipping out of his loosened grasp, Ace turned and without breaking stride aimed a roundhouse kick at one last –in Philip’s case- over developed muscle.
He actually squealed when it landed.
The Doctor would not have approved the unholy grin of satisfaction Ace flashed as Philip, cleanly pole-axed, slowly toppled over and fell with a heavy thud, clutching his most precious possessions.
Tough, Ace thought grimly. At least he was still breathing.
Snatching up the gun, Ace looked back at her rescuer. The older woman, mouse brown hair liberally streaked with gray, was holding her jacket closed like a shield and seemed poised for instant flight.
“Wait!” Ace called, careful to keep her voice below a shout. If the Master hadn’t heard anything they might get away with this yet. “Please, I won’t hurt you.”
Philip groaned and Ace kicked him again. The angle was wrong for that single over developed muscle, but it shut him up anyway. He passed out completely. The woman smiled.
So did Ace.
They were communicating.
“How did you get in here?” Ace asked.
“The door was open. You’re not with him?”
“Did it look like it?” Ace instantly regretted those words. She had never been very good at dealing with the older generations, her own mother included. The Doctor didn’t count of course.
Ace noticed the hatred in the woman’s eyes as she glared down at Philip’s prone form. “You know him?”
“My daughter’s husband.”
That loaded statement required no response.
“Where is she?” Megan asked, her desperation clear.
Ace knew. Five missing women. Four bodies. The math was easy. The final sum though was unknown. The woman’s hope was such a fragile thing and Ace didn’t want to be the one to destroy it.
“He was gonna put me in here,” Ace indicated the door. It was a cop-out, but at least she didn’t have to say the words.
Megan brushed Ace aside, intent only on her answers. Luck, it would seem, had been with her so far. Opening the door, she prayed it had yet to abandon her. The room’s interior was dark and spartan in the extreme. The poor light revealed a single cot with a small form curled up on it, face pressed against the wall.
“Taylor?” Megan whispered, afraid now to find the truth.
The figure stirred and sat up. Short, ill-cut chestnut brown hair framed a face devoid of all emotion but resignation. Cold, empty eyes regarded the figure silhouetted in the doorway with wary caution. Then something long forgotten returned to those eyes, freeing a spirit that had not been broken, only bent.
“Mother?” she whispered tentatively, so used to disappointment.
It was all the answer Megan needed. She rushed in, meeting her daughter halfway and holding her, unashamed tears flowing down her cheeks. It is said that hope burns eternal, but in truth it lasts only so long as faith remains kindled in the heart. Megan’s faith had only been a weak ember, her hope almost lost. Holding her daughter, she vowed never again to let her go.
Ace turned away. She didn’t want to see, didn’t want to hear. She had played this scene out so many times in her own mind, guided by what her heart wanted and not by what might truly be. The apologies, the recriminations, the open soul searching that would reveal that maybe, just maybe, they had both been wrong and could start again.
A future possibility that would have to wait.
Ace reached out and touched Megan on the shoulder. “We haven’t got time,” she said gently, handing her the gun. “Watch him and wait here.”
Ace had a plan.
“It doesn’t work,” Megan pointed out, holding the weapon like it was a deadly snake. She didn’t know anything about guns.
Neither did Ace. “If he comes too,” she called over her shoulder, headed towards the console room, “Tell him you fixed it.”
The Doctor had taught Ace to regard Time as a living thing. Each moment was connected to the next, building and relying on each other to maintain order out of chaos. One lesson among many Ace had never really paid much attention to. Reaching her objective, she fervently prayed that at least one lesson had been mastered, because if it hadn’t none of them had any hope of getting out of here alive.
The magician’s apprentice, fingers crossed, could only trust to fate that she had accomplished the impossible and learned the secret to the Doctor’s timing.
Her pack, still on the floor where Philip had tossed it, was quickly opened and madly ransacked. There were only two things Ace needed, the two most important items without which any time traveler was doomed. Finding them, Ace almost whooped in triumph.
Nitro nine and duct tape.
Now came the hard part. Timing. How long to get back to Taylor and her mother, tie up Philip, then get back to the lab and rescues the Doctor? Given the fact that her explosive timers weren’t always reliable, how much leeway for safety?
The Doctor always made this look so easy.
Ace set the timer for fifteen minutes and set the explosive underneath the console. Even if it did go off early, that still left plenty of time for them to get out of range. Whatever damage was done would still be enough to distract the Master. It would probably send him over the edge, which was just as good. That’s when the bad guys started making mistakes.
Shouldering her pack, she almost tripped over the cable as she headed back. Briefly, she contemplated pulling it out but decided not to. Best not to push her luck. The nitro, when it went off, would take care of it.
Philip was still unconscious when Ace got back, proving that their luck was still holding. Moving quickly and without explanation, Ace dropped her pack and got down on her knees, using the duct tape on his wrists and ankles. Megan handed her daughter the gun and got down to help. Taylor seemed reluctant to get too close to her husband.
Ace couldn’t blame her.
Then she surprised her by getting down and grimly searching through Philip’s pockets. From his trouser pocket Taylor pulled out a ring of keys.
Ace just looked at her questioningly.
Taylor held up the ring, displaying one key Ace found hauntingly familiar. “The key to this place,” she said. Her voice was hoarse and scratchy. “Philip bragged. They might come in handy.”
Ace nodded. They just might at that.
Finished with the tape, Ace stood up. “Help me drag him in there,” she asked Megan. Both women grabbed him by the shoulders and began pulling him into Taylor’s former prison.
“Why don’t we just kill him?” Taylor’s question was cold and clinical.
Despite what had happened, Megan was still shocked by her daughter’s willingness to take a life, even Philip’s. Nothing could justify that.
Ace had been expecting it. “No.” She shut the door. If Taylor couldn’t find her way out, she had no doubts Philip wouldn’t either. It was a matter of intelligence. Killing him was out of the question.
The Doctor would not approve.
“You don’t know what he’s done!” Taylor’s voice held a hint of hysteria. “What they did!”
“Don’t matter. You can tell us later. We got maybe ten minutes to hustle our butts back to the lab and rescue the Doctor.”
“Who?” Megan asked, completely lost.
“He’s an alien, Mother,” Taylor said, eyes narrowed distrustfully. “Just like the Master.”
“He’s not like the Master!” Ace snapped, wondering how much the crazy kitty had told her.
“What happens in ten minutes?” Taylor was only slightly appeased.
“Console’s gonna go boom. Think it’ll distract the Master?”
Taylor grinned wickedly. “Should do.”
Ace decided she liked her.
Megan was still lost. “The what?”
“Later Mother, I promise.”
Ace nodded, her face grim. It wasn’t much of a cavalry, but it would have to serve. "Let's do it."
Ward and his crew had reached the barrow. Using Philip’s van as a partial shelter against the raging wind and rain, they all watched the entrance with tense expectation. The van’s lights were still on, providing much need illumination. Soaked through and cold, they ignored the elements, weapons protected beneath their coats, and waited.
Kevin asked the obvious. “Now what?”
Ward leaned over, rubbing the kinks out of his knee. “We wait,” he cautioned.
“Will we be able to hear it?” Megan was as unsure as her cousin. Events just seemed to be moving too fast.
A crack of lightning and thunder rumbled overhead, far too close for comfort. Daniel glanced uneasily up into the pitch-black sky. “It’ll have to be loud.”
“Very loud,” Erik muttered.
Ward was in no mood for conversation. “We won’t hear a thing if certain people don’t keep silent.”
Certain people did know how to take a hint, no matter how sarcastically given.
True innocence was rare. As a commodity it was traded by some, prized by others and ridiculed by the rest. Children were its essence, the pure core by which all else was judged. Two men regarded the infant from vastly opposed viewpoints. One saddened by a precious future about to be denied, the other coldly indifferent.
“Impressed?” the Master asked.
Child-like disappointment flared in those feline eyes. It wasn’t the response the Master wanted to hear. “I have won,” he gloated petulantly.
“No. You’ve lost,” the Doctor spoke softly, careful not to frighten the child. It giggled as he reached down and tickled his chin. “We both have.”
“Win, lose, what does it matter?” His grin became sly, calculating. “Triumph is still within your grasp, Doctor.”
“As you said, what does it matter?”
“Kill the child.”
The Doctor snatched his hand back as if he’d been burned.
Laughing, his sanity precariously balanced, the Master shoved him to the floor and lifted up the child, holding it high. “It would be so easy!” he roared. The child started screaming. “I’m not so arrogant to believe I achieved this without a bit of luck. Bio-engineering is not my forte. What are the odds I could do this again?”
The Doctor picked himself up, worried now not only for himself but Ace and the child. He had to stall for time. “You should not have been able to achieve it in the first place!” the Doctor snapped, trying to keep his enemy off balance. “Are you now prepared to wait sixty years for maturity? Will you still be sentient by then?”
And what did this have to do with the cusp? The Doctor had always prided himself on being able to see the big picture. He was the outsider with all the answers, second guessing fate and circumstance with daring aplomb. He wasn’t the outsider now; whatever was about to happen was as much a part of his time line as well as the Master’s. A muddled chaotic mess that wouldn’t reveal its secrets till the very end.
Which choice was the correct one?
He needed answers. There was one last secret in the lab and the cable led him to it. A converted transmat booth roughly lashed together with a mix of Gallifreyan and pirated Dalek time corridor technology. A cobbled together mess of loose wires and out dated circuits. Denied the freedom of travel through the vortex the Master, with his usual mad brilliance, had used what he could. The TARDIS console, with its temporal balancers, computers and link to the vortex, connected to a mongrel transmat. Suspicious, the Doctor wanted, needed, to ask, but was tired of playing games. It was dangerous. It was demented.
Therefore, it had to be the truth.
The Master, even in his present state, was able to follow his adversary’s line of reasoning. “Have you guessed?”
“Oh, I’ve guessed. Your sanity is the only thing in question now.”
“I have done it before.”
“With the help of a trapped Chronovore,” the Doctor sneered. It was just like the Master to take credit for something he’d had no control over. That young man’s brush with a temporal embolism and rapid aging had been an uncontrolled accident. “Stuart Hyde barely survived. Dare you risk it?”
“I have no choice!” The Master’s vehement justification startled more frightened screams from the child he still carried in the crook of his arm. Scowling, he continued, “As you so gleefully pointed out, my mental faculties are not what they once were…”
“Philip Delaney being the best you can now accomplish.”
“…and forced aging in a tank is not a risk I am prepared to take,” the Master finished, his desperation now evident. “I need an unformed mind, Doctor. And a new body to go with it. Circumstance has dictated that the time is now…or never.”
“Are you blind as well as insane!” the Doctor bellowed. Perhaps volume could achieve what reason could not. He stepped forward, bringing himself dangerously close to the Master’s sharp claws. “We are in the middle of a cusp! Creating a localized embolism, any interference at all, could bring the entire fabric of space-time crashing about our ears!”
Or was it supposed to happen this way? Future, past, the time lines were hopelessly tangled, a jumbled mess of probabilities and choices. Nothing was certain, everything was possible. Ace’s prophetic statement came back to haunt him.
The Doctor just did not know.
Arrogance was the Master’s protection. “Tapping into the chaotic energy of the vortex is my only chance at a future.” He then laughed, for he did know the consequences of his actions. “If I fail, then so be it. I’m dead either way. What do I care if the rest of creation joins me in oblivion?”
Certain of his own course, the Master abruptly pivoted away from the Doctor, making his way towards the transmat booth. The child, as all children do, sensed the danger and wailed louder. The sound cut right through the Doctor’s soul. For the child, for all the children, past, present and future, his own nature left him no other option.
Creation revolved around choices, and the Doctor made his.
He charged, aiming himself at the Master’s unprotected back. It was an unexpected move, daring in its simplicity, surprise its only merit.
It was also very stupid.
Without breaking stride, the Master swung his arm back; claws extended, and caught the Doctor a stunning blow across the side of his head. There was no pain, not yet, as he was sent flying across the lab. He knew the claws had ripped skin, could feel the blood flowing as he crashed into a bench. He felt his left knee crack against something, but still there was nothing. The fuzzy detachment had a curious familiarity as he fell limply to the floor.
Concussion. Blood loss. A possibly broken knee.
Then the pain began, sending him reeling into blessed darkness.
At the last, he heard the Master laughing and knew despair.
“Infantile, Doctor,” he heard a voice say before the light faded completely. “Extremely infantile.”
Somehow, Ace had lost control of her little group. Taylor was in the lead as they ran towards the lab. The young woman’s woefully thin features were set with grim determination, the useless gun clenched in her hand like a talisman of vengeance. Ace could understand that, revenge was her right. But the Doctor had taught her that vengeance had to tempered with justice or it was just an empty gesture.
Ace knew justice was the last thing on Taylor’s mind, and with that came the certain realization that the young woman’s path of choice could get them all killed.
“Tay, what is going on?” Megan begged her daughter, frightened by what she saw in Taylor’s eyes. This person was a stranger to her.
“Why don’t we all just yell out and let the bastard know we’re coming!” Ace hissed, disgusted. This was not how you snuck up on the bad guy. It was really bad form.
“We have the gun!” Taylor snapped back.
“The Master doesn’t know that.”
She had a point. “Think you can out bluff the devil?”
Ace took her by the arm and pulled her to a halt, inclining her head towards the lab entrance that was just a few steps down the corridor. Fine. Taylor could have her vengeance, as long as they all didn’t end up as cat food.
“Then here’s your chance,” Ace whispered.
The rain had stopped.
The raging wind, thunder and lightning had abruptly ceased as if a switch had been thrown. Without the wind to drive them, the clouds still roiled madly around a single center of circulation.
Ward stepped away from his companions, eyes as dark as the night around him and stared up into the chaos.
“Uncle Cathan?” Moira called, shivering not from the cold but from a sudden primitive, superstitious fear.
He held up his hand, commanding silence, and listened. There was nothing to hear. Where once the storm had raged, absolute silence now reigned. Looking to him for some comfort, the four young adults waited for an explanation.
“Something’s wrong,” he told them, troubled. “I can feel it.”
The Doctor regained consciousness. Still groggy, he could feel the blood on his face, stinging as it flowed into his eye and clouding half his vision. The Master had placed the child in the booth, ignoring his fallen enemy. Attempting to climb to his feet, the Doctor’s knee collapsed beneath him, a wave of intense pain threatening to overwhelm him. He landed sprawled across the cable.
He gripped the cable in both hands. The power surge would probably kill him, literally frying any chance he had to regenerate. He had no regrets, another terrified howl from the child saw to that.
Fate, it seemed, wasn’t through with the Doctor yet.
The Master’s horribly transformed foot came down, claws mercilessly raking new wounds across the backs of his hands. The Doctor had never heard him coming. His enemy now moved with the pure stealth of a predator.
“Don’t you ever give up?” came the Master’s exasperated growl.
Clawed hands grabbed the Doctor by the throat and lifted him into the air. While the Doctor’s present frame didn’t mass all that much, it was still an impressive feat. Lips curled back, the Master’s growls were rapidly losing any hint of sentience. The lure of the kill was becoming too much to fight.
Realizing he still had a chance, the Doctor goaded him further. “Can you hold on long enough?” he croaked. “Don’t want to miss your own birthday.”
Snarling, the Master thrust him away, battling to maintain his last shred of self, all too close to losing his one chance at life and renewal. Stumbling, trying desperately to keep his balance on a crippled leg, the Doctor fell backwards.
Right into Ace’s arms.
“Your timing is improving, Ace,” he told her weakly as she caught him.
“Learned from the best,” she replied. While his condition shocked her, she still wasn’t worried. They were together again. The Master didn’t stand a chance.
Or so she hoped.
Taylor and her mother followed close behind. Taylor had the gun trained on the Master, her hate and loathing clear. The Doctor looked at the young woman; something akin to awe in his gaze as he watched her fevered eyes quickly scan the lab. He knew what she was searching for. While not truly of her body, the child was still hers, she had been the beginning.
Finding the booth and the trapped infant, she gripped the weapon tighter and began to edge carefully forward, angry eyes fixed on the Master.
Ace knew it was a bluff.
The Master didn’t. Throwing back his head, he howled, the sound threatening to shatter glass.
Taylor looked to her mother and was lost. That brief mistake was all the Master needed. Driven by the animal within, he lashed out, knocking Taylor to the floor and taking the gun. She lay there, unmoving. Megan ran to her daughter and fell to her knees, lifting the limp body into her arms and crying with relief when she found her still breathing.
The animal may have won him this reprieve, but it was the Master of old who now raised the weapon and pointed it at the Doctor.
Even the blood on his face couldn’t mask the Doctor’s scorn. “Primitive, even by your standards. Wouldn’t the TCE be more appropriate?”
“Whatever is at hand, Doctor.”
The Doctor gasped as Ace tightened her grip. Her concern touched him but at this moment was more a threat to his fragile grip on consciousness than the Master and the gun. He touched her hand with his bloodied one, both to reassure and to loosen her grip.
Ace didn’t want nor need reassurance. “Doctor,” she whispered.
“The gun doesn’t work.”
“What do you know about guns?”
“Enough to know they go bang when you pull the trigger,” she whispered back. “And that one didn’t. Twice.”
Ace loved to surprise the Doctor on those rare occasions when she got the chance, and this was no exception. She meant to tell him about the nitro in the console room as well, but a shrill, electronic alarm interrupted. Taylor, just now waking up in her mother’s arms, sat bolt upright and upon seeing the Master with the gun, smiled.
The Doctor couldn’t help but smile himself.
It still left them with one major problem. Even with a useless weapon, in his present condition the Master was more that capable of taking on one crippled Time Lord and three –albeit determined- human woman and ripping them all to little bloody pieces. The Doctor knew also what that alarm meant as well. Their time was running out.
The cusp was approaching fast.
The Master had prepared for this moment; his last act in this degraded, failing body. The cusp brought with it his future and the Doctor’s final demise, but not yet. Like all would be demi-gods, there was one thing he needed.
“Temporal flux is almost at its peak, Doctor.” He stepped back to the booth and the wailing child, his hand on the gun never wavering. A small control panel, connected by a string of wires and lying on a bench beside the booth, was his goal. “You’ll live, for the moment, to bear witness.”
“To your ultimate folly?”
“My resurrection.” The Master’s hand reached for the final switch.
Ward grabbed Moira, pulling her away from the van and taking her to the ground, covering her with his body. “Get away from the van!” he yelled, praying that for once they would obey without question. “Get down!”
The boys knew when to listen. Without question or thought, they all dove away from the vehicle, hitting the wet turf and covering their heads.
Hotter than the surface of the sun, the lightning bolt hit the van with a deafening crescendo. Raw plasma danced over the metal surface like a mad creature searching for some escape. Then it changed; becoming a thing some scientists –even though it had been recreated briefly on a minor scale in labs- didn’t believe existed in nature.
Only seconds had passed and yet this creation, the Earth’s ultimate expression of raw, uncontrolled power, had enough energy to drive the largest metropolitan city for a day. No bigger than a soccer ball, it hopped and skipped, searching for an unknown path nature had decreed. It hit the ground between Ward and his family, then surged at blinding speed across the ground. Nature’s madness had found its path.
Straight through the open TARDIS door.
Without a sound, pale and determined, Taylor pulled away from her mother’s arms and launched herself not at the Master, but at the booth, intent on the helpless child within. Ace released the Doctor, making her own attempt at rescue.
Helpless, falling to his good knee, the Doctor could only watch as the two women made their way towards destiny.
The Master pressed the switch.
The nitro, with the timer Ace had so worried about, did its job. With a final whirring click, it reached zero and ignited the deadly combustibles within its casing.
Three probabilities met with a resounding explosion that echoed throughout the whole of creation. The choices had been made, every action taken. Millions of time lines came together, surrendering first to chaos, then to order as Time’s fabric, stretched and close to breaking, was finally rewoven into a new cohesive whole.
Time took a close look at the resulting weave and breathed a sigh of relief.
But it wasn’t over yet.
There was one final strand as yet un-woven. Leave it to the lesser beings and they always left the job half done. As usual, the final act had yet to play out.
Kevin was the first to lift his head. Quiet and contemplative, always able to make one word do the work of several, he uttered the perfect choice in an awed whisper, “Wow.” Then he gasped as a wave of nausea flipped his stomach over. Climbing to his feet, he saw that Erik and Daniel were similarly affected, breathing rapidly but otherwise hale as they too got to their feet.
Ward groaned as he rolled off Moira, his face a mask of intense pain as he clutched his head in agony. Fighting her own rebellious stomach, Moira quickly realized that whatever was affecting them had hit her uncle with far greater intensity.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, frantic. Laying her hand on his forehead, she found his skin cooler than usual and clammy.
Dizzy and confused, Ward shook his head. “Go!” he shouted hoarsely, trying to get to his feet and failing.
“I’m not leaving you!”
Ward pushed her away. “There’s no time! You know what has to be done! Follow the cable!”
Nobody moved. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Leaving him was not part of the plan. Indecision and reluctance battled with purpose, leaving the final choice unmade.
Ward made it for them. “Go!” he roared, his command brooking no argument.
Weapons at the ready, they obeyed.
Taylor staggered, clinging to the transmat door for balance as the explosion rocked the TARDIS. Focused on her one course of action, clenching her teeth against a sudden need to retch, she reached for the child just as a soft glow began to suffuse the booth’s interior. Her limbs became heavy, every movement a supreme effort of will as she lifted the screaming infant into her arms.
Ace couldn’t later recall if she had screamed a warning or simply screamed in helpless rage. She saw the two figures trapped within become indistinct, fading into the enveloping brightness till there was nothing but an eye searing white blaze. Temporarily blinded, Ace still tried to get closer, unwilling to leave Taylor and the child to their fate.
Then she heard the Doctor moan.
Through watering, glare spotted eyes she saw the small figure of the Doctor curled up on the floor, his features twisted with pain. Instinctively, Ace knew it wasn’t his wounds that had brought him down. This was a Time Lord thing. Guessing the truth wasn’t all that difficult. It was happening.
The Doctor had once told her he was a Time Sensitive, able to feel the subtle currents of events. He had laughed; saying it wasn’t as developed as some races, but enough to give him the occasional itch in his back teeth when things started going loopy. Whatever was happening went far beyond a simple itch.
The temporal backlash went completely unnoticed by the Master.
Just regaining his balance, the disgraced Time Lord finally deigned to acknowledge the chaos around him. His howl of rage and betrayal thundered over the growing din. He knew Taylor was in the transmat, throwing off all his careful calculations. The gun in his hand was useless. He couldn’t fire it and risk hitting the child or any of the delicate equipment. There was nothing altruistic about his choice, merely self-interest. Behind him, the lashed together panel popped and sparked, inadequate circuits vainly trying to contain a massive surge of power they had never been designed to handle in the first place.
With a final, smoking crack they failed.
The white blaze became an inferno, flaring to impossible brilliance, then just as quickly cutting off.
The transmat booth was empty.
Then it exploded.
On his hands and knees, Ward gasped at the abrupt release from pain. Drawing a shaky breath, as confused by the absence of nausea and agony as he was by its sudden onset, he didn’t bother to speculate. Moira and the boys were alone and unguided, facing a monster in its den with a surfeit of courage but little experience.
The TARDIS entrance stood before him.
No doubts shadowed his choice.
Ward’s past and future were waiting.
The explosion, contained in such a small area, blew out from its center with devastating force. Anything nearby that wasn’t nailed down, beakers with unknown chemicals, tables, equipment of various shapes and sizes either ignited from the intense heat or were sent flying.
Flying, she decided as the percussion wave knocked her silly, was easy. It was the landings that were hard. Very hard. Gravity was a bitch too. She hit the floor –or it hit her- with an impact that left her stunned. Vision swimming, she lay there, trying desperately to remember how to breathe. Senses dulled, Ace heard Megan screaming.
So did the Doctor. The temporal instability past and his mind clear, he heard the terrible sound of a mother who had witnessed the death of her child. Through the smoke and haze of fires that continued unchecked, he saw anguish in Megan’s eyes that wrenched his soul. She stared at the fiery wreckage of the transmat, tears that had nothing to do with the smoke streaming down her cheeks. Then those eyes, empty except for despair, turned on the Master.
Anger replaced despair. Hatred flared. Blame was laid. Vengeance became Megan Cleary’s path of choice. With a cry as primal in its fury as it was in grief, she cast herself to fate and lunged at the Master.
Fate or choice had little to do with the Doctor’s reaction. It was inevitable. Pushing his battered body to the limits, ignoring the pain, he caught the maddened woman. There had been enough death this day. Killing her would be nothing to the Master.
Killing was the only thing the Master had left.
Hatred consumed him, twisting what was left of his soul into a shapeless black void, empty of all else save its own dark hunger. Raging against fate and circumstance and watching his hopes for resurrection go up in flames, the Master searched for someone to blame. As always, the blame landed on one man’s shoulders.
The gun was heavy in the Master’s hand. Raising it required the last shred of will in his rapidly deteriorating mind. Pointing it at the Doctor as he struggled to hold Megan was simplicity itself. Pulling the trigger was pure joy.
It was circumstance final betrayal.
The Master, who had struggled for so long to keep the animal within him contained, fought his final battle. The animal won. With child like petulance, he hurled the useless revolver at the Doctor, catching him a glancing blow. His roar held no hint of rational thought, not a fragment of intelligence or sanity. Only the promise of blood echoed in that sound. Even Megan, lost in her own madness, ceased her struggles with the Doctor when she heard that sound.
A predator, free of any thought other than the hunt, stalked its prey.
Then, strangely, the hunter paused. Glancing first at the Doctor and Megan, then at the stunned Ace as she lay on the floor, the Master bared his teeth in a hideous smile. Cunning to the end, perhaps a small bit of intelligence still in control, he made a final choice. Blood and vengeance would still be had, but his enemy would be broken first.
The Master turned on Ace.
Knowing his intent but helpless to stop him, the Doctor released Megan and made the vain attempt to intercept the Master. It was too much. The last of his physical reserves had been used. The Doctor could only watch as another companion died while he, the consummate player, lived on, powerless to intervene.
There were no choices left.
Ace, coughing, saw the threat approaching through the clouds of smoke. She didn’t scream; there would have been no point. Oddly, her only thought was why the Master’s TARDIS didn’t have a fire suppression system.
She did scream –involuntarily of course- when a single gunshot rang out. The Master, caught high in the shoulder by the bullet, was knocked by the impact onto the one bench that remained upright. The fires, already raging out of control, leapt hungrily at the freshly spilled chemicals.
Ace didn’t recognize the young man who burst in and stood protectively over her, an obviously functional gun in his hands. He was tall, brown hair with pale blue eyes and dressed in dark, very wet riding leathers. Kind of cute in an imperfect sort of way.
Then two more young men entered the fray, guns at the ready, coughing as they breathed in the acrid smoke. Lighter brown hair, eyes perhaps bluer, maybe a little less cute, shorter, younger, and like enough to be twins. Ace didn’t mind being rescued. She was grateful in fact. Knowing the names of the players would have been a nice bonus.
Moira Ward, making her entrance no less dramatically than the others, Ace did recognize. She had a gun too. At this point, Ace decided confusion was a very comfortable state of being.
Not really expecting any answers – that would be pushing it- Ace turned her gaze to the Doctor. He was still standing, balanced precariously on his good leg. Megan had slipped to the floor, weeping or coughing, she couldn’t tell. Ace knew the Doctor recognized Moira, but the others were as much a mystery to him as they were to her. The Doctor didn’t have any answers to give or withhold.
Ace couldn’t help but feel a little smug.
He had to go and spoil it by smiling.
Then he began to laugh.
Ace had heard him laugh before, but never like this. It wasn’t hysteria. Rather, it seemed a heartfelt tribute to a grand joke that he had finally –if a bit late- caught the punch line. He swayed unsteadily and one of the twins, his concern evident, took the Time Lord’s arm. The Doctor shook his head, laughter subsiding to a deep chuckle, accepting his help.
Ace fumed. So he did have an answer of sorts, and as usual would share when he was good and ready.
Moira blinked, trying to see through the smoke. “Kevin, where is he!”
“I hit him! I know I did!”
Ace accepted Kevin’s offer of a hand up. Cute and a gentleman. This was getting better by the minute. “You did hit him,” she said, pointing over to where the fire seemed to be burning hottest. “He landed over there.”
The bench the Master had landed on lay on its side, the chemical fueled fire licking greedily at the edges. Ace didn’t want to guess what had been inside those containers. The smell was enough to convince her to leave her imagination out of it. If the Master was underneath all that, then she didn’t really want to know.
The pile of flaming debris surged upward, broken glass and liquid burning like napalm flying everywhere. Ace and the others scattered, dodging the deadly missiles as the Master flung off his burning cloak and hurled it towards them. No one had time to think, let alone fire a weapon. He had been counting on it. Shoulder bleeding, his hands singed and body covered with the smoldering remains of the volatile chemical bath he had landed in, the Master quickly found the object of his hatred.
The Doctor met that gaze, surprised to find all trace of the animal gone. Only a lone, bitter creature remained. Abandoned by fate and betrayed by circumstance, the Master smiled and inclined his head slightly, a strangely elegant and noble gesture that conflicted with his present appearance. Without words he conveyed one simple message. Another time, another place.
This battle was over.
An impossible leap took him through the wall of flame behind him. The chemicals on his skin ignited once again, outlining his form with an eerie glow as he disappeared into the smoke. Only then did the others react, but too late.
The Master was gone.
Moira made as if to follow him, but Kevin grabbed her arm. “Are you crazy!” he demanded.
“We can’t let him get away!”
“Yes you can!” the Doctor shouted, commanding their attention. The fire, fed by an unknown mix of toxins and a poorly contained bio-reactor with its deadly contents were bad enough. The last thing he needed was these youngsters haring off into an unknown TARDIS and getting hopelessly lost.
Moira was undeterred. “You don’t know what he did!” She unconsciously echoed the words Taylor had used earlier. The same anger was there, the revulsion and a demand for justice.
Ace heard and remembered
So did Megan.
Bereft and forgotten, she wasn’t about to let justice slip through her fingers. Desperately, she knocked Erik and Daniel aside, as intent on following the Master through hell as she had in pursuing Philip. Perhaps she hoped the others would follow as well, it didn’t matter, not any more.
She no longer cared.
Kevin witnessed the play of emotions on her face and moved to intercept.
Megan was caught and held, but not by Kevin.
Ward was there, appearing through the smoke and holding out his arms. With nowhere else to go, Megan flew into his embrace. He hugged her close as she struggled, muttering soothing words, trying to break down the wall of grief and anguish she had built up.
He took her face in his hands and stared into her fevered eyes. “Mrs. Cleary!” he shouted, resisting the urge to shake her. “Megan! You know me! Please listen!”
Megan stilled, captured by the intensity in his gaze. “She’s gone,” she sobbed brokenly, bordering on hysteria again. “I’ve lost her!”
“I won’t lie to you. God’s truth, I would never do that. You will never see her again. But I swear, on my honor, my name and my immortal soul, Taylor is alive, safe and happy. Please believe me.”
Megan’s crying turned to soft hiccoughs. “You swear?”
Hearing the fear and doubt in her voice, Ward said, “I swear. You’ll hear the truth, and not just from me. Taylor will tell you herself.”
“But you said…”
“You’ll understand, I promise.”
He had broken through her wall. The grief was still there, but she believed him or was willing to wait and hear more before passing judgment. What about his own wall, the one he had spent so many years building? It was still there, solid as ever.
Over Megan’s shoulder, Ward met the Doctor’s gaze. The antagonism and suspicion of their earlier meeting was gone. What was in that strange little man’s gaze now he wouldn’t venture to guess. Ancient and tired, what he saw was almost frightening in its intensity and understanding.
Ward looked away.
One day perhaps, the Doctor would explain. He knew what and who Cathan Ward was. The Time Lord had recognized him earlier that day, but the memories, buried and long forgotten with so many other regrets, had been fleeting. Images of another man, another place and another time. The Doctor resisted the urge to speak a name he hadn’t thought of or used in centuries. It wouldn’t be fair to Cathan Ward who was now and the memory of the man who was before.
The Master’s demented plans. A combination of advanced knowledge and primitive techniques that should never have worked. The cusp. The time loop. A lost child, alien and alone, set on an epic journey. It hadn’t been a resurrection, but a rebirth. Only Time could tell what the final ending would be.
Even Time’s champion could be humbled every now and then.
Telling Ace was guaranteed to be the highlight of his day.
“You certainly took you time getting here,” the Doctor couldn’t resist the quip.
Ward, puzzled only for a moment, smiled ruefully. “You have no idea.”
A fear that had lain on Ward’s soul for so long was finally cast off, weakening the mortar in his own emotional wall. The Doctor knew and had absolved him of responsibility. He was not a monster. The Master’s sins had no bearing on his actions or life, only the beginning. There was no revulsion in the Doctor’s eyes, only acceptance.
It had been a silly fear, absurd really. But its absence left Ward looking to the future with a sense of freedom he had never thought possible.
Something popped and exploded within the flames. “I think it’s time we left,” the Doctor commented dryly.
“No arguments here,” Ward replied, motioning Erik over. Pulling back from Megan he handed her over to the young man. Ace relieved his brother and took the Doctors arm. Daniel moved over next to Megan as well.
“Take her outside,” Ward told them. “We’ll be close behind.”
Megan was reluctant to leave. The boys, when they needed to be, could be very convincing. It didn’t take them long to win her trust. She followed willingly.
“What about the Master?” Moira, tenacious as ever, wasn’t about to let him go that easily.
“The matter is not open for debate! As far as I’m concerned he can burn in hell till the day after forever, but none of us are going to follow him. Is that understood?”
A familiar groan and shudder that echoed through the TARDIS forestalled any further argument. Familiar to Ace and the Doctor that is. The others, Moira and Kevin, were confused and frightened.
Ward was a bit more pragmatic. “Do I really want to know what that means?”
Ace knew. “Professor…”
“We have a problem,” the Doctor’s voice was grim. “He’s reached the secondary control room. In the Master’s present condition, his chances of piloting this machine are practically nil. But…” he left the last word hanging.
Ward hated guessing games. “But…!”
“I haven’t time to explain completely. Suffice it to say that with you or I on board his difficulties will be considerably lessened.”
“Can we stop him?”
The Doctor nodded, coughing. The smoke was getting thicker. “Help me to the primary control room. If I can lock out the circuits, fix the architecture in time as well as space…” he paused, seeing the looks on everyone’s faces. “What?”
“Uh oh,” Ace muttered, looking guilty.
“Great,” Kevin was back to using single words.
Moira was a great believer in sarcasm. “We’re in trouble.”
The Doctor glared at Ace accusingly. “What did you do?”
“I only used one can!”
“And the console?”
“Toast,” Megan volunteered, stepping up beside Ace. Girls did have to stick together after all.
“Be fair,” Ward pointed out. “The explosives did have a little help.”
“Dare I ask?” The Doctor looked pained and not just from his injuries.
Ward shrugged. “Lightning.”
“A lightning strike? Through a TARDIS’ dimensional interface? Impossible!”
Moira didn’t know an interface from a hole in the ground. She did know lightning. “It didn’t exactly strike. More like it rolled.”
“It bounced a few times too,” Kevin added.
“Well cool,” Ace said, wishing she had seen it. Not that her nitro had really needed the help.
“Ball lightning. What are the odds?” the Doctor sighed, definitely having one of those days. With the primary console toast as Moira had so eloquently put it, transferring control wasn’t going to be easy. The TARDIS groaned again.
Not that the Master wasn’t giving it the old school try.
“That leaves us with only one option.”
“Run?” Ward asked, although it wasn’t really a question.
“You’re not running anywhere. Kevin!”
Kevin didn’t need to be told. He unceremoniously slung the Doctor over his shoulder, staggering a bit as he stifled a cough. The smoke and the heat were starting to get to him as well.
“This is highly undignified,” the Doctor grunted.
“I do not squirm!”
“Right,” Kevin muttered, setting off down the corridor with his reluctant passenger.
“Moira, go with them,” Ward told his niece. “Ace…”
Ace wasn’t about to be told what to do by someone she hardly knew. “I’m going with the Doctor!” Maybe the Doctor knew him, but Ace had always been slow to give her trust. You had to earn it.
Close to exasperation, Ward tried very hard not to bark. Ace wasn’t family after all. “I need you to show me where you stuck Philip!”
“Hey!” Moira was not happy with that decision, “Not without me, you’re not!”
“You’ll do as you’re told!” Ward barked. Moira was family and he was getting tired of her self-righteous posturing. Last born daughter or not, she was going to learn to follow orders. “Now go!”
Moira knew when to cut her losses. Reluctantly she followed her cousin and the Doctor. If Ward poached on her prerogatives, he’d hear from her later. Loudly.
On cue, the TARDIS groaned and shuddered once again. Ward had no idea exactly what that meant, but he was pretty sure their time was running out. Nodding to Ace, he waved his hand. “Lead on.”
Ace still wasn’t sure she trusted him. But he did have a point. They couldn’t leave Philip with the Master, although it would be poetic justice. A monster, even a little pathetic one, deserved like company.
“Wait,” Ward called, stopping her. “Where’s the gun?”
“The one you took from Philip. Where is it?”
How had he known about that? A suspicion was beginning to form in Ace’s mind. The pieces still didn’t quite fit. Who he was. Why he was here. The picture that was building didn’t make sense. It was crazy. It couldn’t be true.
Ace shelved the questions for later.
“The Master had it. I think he threw it at the Doctor.” That last bit was a bit fuzzy, but Ace was pretty sure it had happened that way. “Why?”
Ward didn’t answer. He began searching feverishly through the rubble where the Doctor had been standing. The smoke and heat were almost intolerable but that didn’t stop him. It didn’t take him long to find the gun. Snatching it up Ward carefully flipped the safety and slipped it into his pocket. Offering no explanation, he indicated Ace should continue.
They were in the middle of a burning room, the Master about to give them a magical mystery tour of the universe, and he wanted a broken gun.
Ace decided Cathan Ward the mystery man was insane as well as cranky.
Finding the room where she had left Philip wasn’t difficult. Her pack was still lying outside the door. Picking it up, she felt the reassuring weight of her one remaining can of nitro. It was better than a teddy bear for comfort.
“In here,” she said, shrugging the pack over her shoulder.
Ward tried the handle. It turned, but the door wouldn’t budge. Putting his shoulder to it, he tried again, but only gained a few extra bruises for his efforts. He could hear Philip hollering inside, cussing up a storm.
“It won’t open,” Ace said.
“Obviously,” Ward muttered sarcastically.
Definitely cranky. “It opened before. It locked from the outside.”
“Again, obviously.” Ward ran his hand down the wall. “Was it buckled like this before?”
Ward’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Exactly how powerful were the explosives you used?”
“Nitro 9? Packs ten times the wallop of normal nitro. I make it myself.”
“And ten times the trouble. The door’s jammed.”
“I have another can,” Ace offered, slightly offended by his accusing tone. How was she supposed to now that would happen? “We could blow it open.”
“Good Lord, no! I’ve seen and heard enough explosions today!” He pulled Ace away from the door and pushed her down the corridor. “We’re leaving.”
“You’re just gonna leave him?” Why she was suddenly concerned for a creep like Philip Delaney was beyond her. And why did Ward seem so relieved to have the decision taken out of his hands? “The Doctor won’t like it.”
“Let him. Though I doubt he would be willing to trade your life for Philip’s.”
Ace couldn’t argue with that logic.
The TARDIS groaned, this time accompanied by a wheeze and clanging thump. The floor heaved, sending them both into the wall.
“Not good?” Ward asked dubiously.
Ace had no second thoughts. She ran. Hang around the Doctor long enough and you got used to it. You were usually running from something. Even with a heavy limp, Ward had no problems keeping up. He caught on quick. Time travel survival was an on the job training course and neither one of them fancied a trip with the Master as tour director.
The storm was over.
Only the smell of wet soil and a slight breeze hinted at the forces that had been raging barely an hour before. The stars and a bright full moon filled the night sky. From the puzzled looks on his companion’s faces, the Doctor knew a lecture on the effects of temporal instability on real-time events was forthcoming.
Or had the storm been an effect?
Sitting on the ground and leaning back against the charred remains of Philip’s van, the Doctor reflected on the complicated nature of time and the inter-connection of events. Bearing silent witness to the argument that was brewing between Moira and Kevin, the Doctor sighed wearily. Cause and effect. One storm was over. Another was beginning.
Moira Ward was angry.
“He had no right!” If she had stomped her foot it would have been a picture perfect snit.
“Can it, Moira!” Kevin was losing his patience. “It’s not as if he’s gonna poach.”
Clearing his throat to catch their attention, the Doctor tilted his head towards Megan’s car and the occupants within. Erik and Daniel had just got the poor woman calmed down. Catching any part of Moira’s little tirade wasn’t going to help their cause.
The Doctor had a sneaky suspicion what the young woman’s angry performance was all about. Humans loved a good blood feud and this had all the makings of a classic. As stubborn as Sontarans, they could hold on to a grudge for centuries, even millennia. Look at the Zoroastrians feud with Alexander the great. That one was still going strong after almost three thousand years. Humans were fully capable of passing the gies down from generation to generation without batting an eye.
From the looks of things, Moira was the current recipient.
Moira lowered her voice. “What’s keeping them?”
“Philip probably,” Kevin answered. “Personally, I think we should’ve just left him. Those two were made for each other.”
“Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Moira’s voice had gone back up a notch.
“And deprive you of a little righteous blood letting? I wouldn’t dare.”
The Doctor closed his eyes. It took a great deal to give a Time Lord a headache. The list was very short. In the Doctor’s case, there was one extra addition.
“Children,” the Doctor growled. Now when had he started doing that? Must be the company he was keeping.
Apparently a growl was something these two were used to dealing with. It shut them up.
“Sounds like Uncle Cathan,” Moira commented.
Kevin shrugged. “Must be a racial thing.”
The Doctor raised a curious eyebrow at the young man’s off the cuff statement. That these humans were aware of Ward’s alien nature was a given fact. That they were so nonchalantly cognizant of his was a bit unnerving. A simple deduction, or common family knowledge?
What exactly had the Master told his captive before her dramatic escape?
And how long had they known?
“There they are!” Moira shouted, pointing at the TARDIS entrance.
First Ace, then Ward came running out of the barrow. The Doctor breathed a profound sigh of relief. He didn’t like events getting out of control. This entire fiasco had been nothing more than a frantic game of react and catch up. Not his normal way of doing things. He knew this need for control bordered on the obsessive, but in this regeneration he liked it that way.
Then he saw Philip was missing.
So did Moira.
The Master’s TARDIS, with a nails-on-chalk-board groan that did not sound at all healthy, flickered like an out of tune television then disappeared. Familiar as he was with the sounds of a TARDIS breaking through the dimensional barriers, the Doctor instinctively knew something was terribly wrong. The damage may have been far more extensive than he had originally thought. Whether the Master would arrive at his intended destination was open for debate.
At the very least, leaving the door open hadn’t helped.
Ace skidded to a halt and dropped to her knees, exuberantly throwing her arms about the Doctor’s shoulders. It wasn’t often that she was so openly affectionate, neither was he for that matter. Given the circumstances, the Doctor abandoned his usual reserve and hugged her right back, hoping Ace didn’t see his wince of pain as she jostled his knee.
It would have spoiled the moment.
Ward was refusing to meet Moira’s angry glare. Rather than relieved, his features remained clouded and troubled. There was a spark of emotion in his dark eyes, anger, frustration, the Doctor wasn’t sure. He was left with the impression that something within the man was about to snap, all that was needed was a push.
The Doctor was fairly certain where that push would come from.
Ace was the first to state the obvious. “The Master got away.”
“He always does,” the Doctor sighed with heavy resignation.
Ward was skeptical. “You two make a habit of this?” he asked dubiously.
“I wouldn’t call it a habit,” the Doctor responded huffily. “Just an on and off occurrence every century or so.”
“You had said he might not be able to pilot that thing if you or I were not on board. Were you wrong?”
“I’m not often wrong.”
Ace snorted derisively.
The Doctor glared her into submission. “Dematerializing into the time stream is the easy part. Whether he gets there with his molecular cohesion intact is another matter. Passengers included,” he added for Moira’s benefit.
Far from placating her, it only seemed to make matters worse. Moira crossed her arms, eyes smoldering.
Ace blinked at the sudden, angry electricity crackling in the air.
Ward ignored his niece and her posturing. “So he…they…might be dead?”
“Yes. No. Maybe.” The Doctor smiled, “Probably. Time will tell.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“Get used to it,” Ace muttered, disgusted.
“Where the Master is concerned, you can’t be certain of anything,” the Doctor sounded hurt and more than a little disgusted as well. These confrontations with the Master always, with monotonous regularity, ended on a sour note. He was starting to get just a little tired of the repetition.
“Where’s Philip?” Moira demanded, her voice cold and flat.
The Doctor put his arm around Ace’s shoulders and pulled her closer. Moira, innocently enough, had just pushed the button. The spark in Ward’s eyes flared. Cause and effect. Another storm was about to begin.
Ward clenched his teeth. He had been hoping –futilely it seemed- that she wouldn’t start something in front of strangers. Since her eighteenth birthday she had been waiting for this moment, strutting and posturing, never once letting anyone forget that she was the one who would make everything right and exact vengeance for an act that had happened centuries before she was born. It was her right. It was the family’s right. The promise had been made and would be kept, whatever the cost or whether it was right or wrong.
Regardless of what one man, the only one who really should have had any say in the matter, thought or believed.
Little by little her comments, her bragging over the last few days had chipped away at the dam Ward had built up over his memories and emotions. His temper already frayed and stretched to the limits, snapped. Loving her as he did Ward still had enough control left to offer her a way out.
“Not now, Moira.”
The offering was rejected. “Yes now, old man! I had the promise!”
“You have an ego!” Ward snapped.
“Taylor made the pact. I’m the last born daughter. Philip was my responsibility!”
“Please! I told Mother that was a mistake centuries ago. She didn’t listen and neither are you!”
Kevin looked away, trying to disappear.
Ace squeezed up against the grim, silent form of the Doctor. Her suspicions about these people were rapidly being confirmed. She wasn’t about to ask the Doctor if she was right, not yet. Morbidly fascinated, she couldn’t help but watch this scene play out first.
“I have a right to justice!” Moira was shouting now.
“You have a right?” Ward was incredulous. “This has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with you! So you beat the stuffing out of him. Maybe kill him. What then? Is that justice? No. It’s Moira Ward getting in a few self-righteous, guilt free shots. Would you trade Ace’s life for it? Or mine?”
Moira had never been forced to see it from anyone’s perspective but her own. She had been too busy playing the family avenger. Stubbornness, however, was a Ward family failing.
“You don’t understand…” she began weakly.
“Enough!” Ward stepped up to her, dark eyes shadowed with a soul deep anger and tinged with grief. “I don’t understand? I was there, girl! To the end, she would wake up at nights terrified. Screaming. After Father died, Kavan and I were all she had left. Even the grandchildren didn’t help. It was never enough. Do you have any idea what that’s like? Here and now, I had to stand and watch while the Master and Philip did it all over again, knowing what would come. And you dare to tell me I don’t understand?”
Ward took a deep, shuddering breath. This had gone far beyond Moira and her posturing. The old pains, the anger and frustration he had kept bottled up for so long were finding their way out. Words, sharp and deadly, were all he had to give the ghosts life and set them free.
Unfortunately for her Moira was the only available target.
“Why didn’t I stop them? I could have ended it, stopped the nightmares. Ask me why?” he pleaded.
Moira couldn’t. She didn’t dare. The possibility of an answer terrified her.
Answers the Doctor already knew. He’d begun this battle with his own conscience so long ago the memory remained only as a faint echo. Only the lesson remained. It was never easy, and the answers, although they were right, always hurt. What Ward said next had been whispered so many times in his own mind it had become a litany to pain and loss.
“I did it for you,” Ward whispered, sharing the truth with someone he loved and hoped would still love him when this was over. “For Anne, Richard, Elise, Thomas, Niall, even Trial and Error. God, there are so many names.” He laughed bitterly, “Mother is just going to have to live with the nightmares all over again, isn’t she?”
Shamed, Moira realized his earlier accusation had been correct. This had been a game to her. The promise made to a tormented woman who had died centuries before she was even born had been nothing but an abstract, an empty gesture without cause or meaning. Her thoughtless teasing had only served to keep open the emotional wounds Ward had borne for so many centuries. Keeping alive memories that had haunted him, both waking and sleeping. He had carried them, as he always would, alone.
Moira could think of only one word to say.
“Don’t,” Ward stopped her. “Don’t say it. That word has no meaning, not here. Just leave it. Please?”
Moira did the only thing she could.
She walked away.
Ward tried to feel guilty, but couldn’t. Maybe later it would come, but not now. He was drained. Cold and empty, he knew Moira had only been a target of convenience. She had deserved to be taken down a peg, but the emotional lashing he had given her had not been justified. Once he had started he had been unable to stop.
God, he was tired. “Kevin.”
“Tell Erik and Daniel to take Megan home. If she caught any of that…” he left the rest unsaid. The future had enough guilt in it already. “Have them drop you off at the rover. The Doctor can’t walk and I’m just too damned tired to try.”
“We’ll have to back track. It’ll take awhile.”
“Just do it!” Ward snapped irritably. Then he apologized, easily using the word he had denied Moira, “Sorry. You didn’t deserve that.”
“Neither did Moira.”
Ward rubbed his eyes wearily. “I know. I’ll make it up to her. Have them tell Anne what happened here, what Megan may have heard. She’ll know what to do.”
Disgusted, Ward fished them out of his pocket and tossed them across. Kevin got in the car with his cousins. There was a brief exchange, then the headlights switched on, the engine fired, and the little car drove off.
Maybe it was time he left as well. It would be so easy. Just walk away. Ward had done it before, running away from regrets and fears. Involvement. So easy to think about. So easy to do.
The coward’s way.
Witness to this tragic play, Ace had at last come to her own conclusions. She looked at the Doctor, finding his face nearly as bleak and tired as Ward’s. It only confirmed her suspicions.
“He’s the baby, isn’t he?” she said.
“Figured it out, did you?”
Ace felt like hitting him. “Don’t go snotty just because you can’t gloat. Yeah, I figured it out. I was right, too.”
“This whole mess. It was a time loop and a cusp. Both big ones I’ll bet.”
Good teachers lived to see their students excel. The Doctor was a good teacher and Ace a student to be proud of. “Very big,” he admitted.
“What is he to the Master?”
So she hadn’t guessed that part. “His clone,” the Doctor’s voice was smug.
“That’s putting it lightly.”
“How long has he waited?”
“Maybe seven hundred years, give or take a century.”
Ace looked skeptical.
“The clues were there, if we had known what to look for. The name of the village,” the Doctor explained with that familiar twinkle in his eye. Ace was glad to see it back. “Wheardham. Old English with more than a little Saxon influence. Weard meaning guard or watch. To ward. Ham meaning place.”
“Ward’s place,” Ace finished.
The Doctor nodded. “A place to watch.”
“No wonder he dumped on her.” Ace looked over at Moira’s lonely figure and made a quick decision. She started to get up when the Doctor’s hand on her arm stopped her.
“Be careful,” he told her quietly. The gentle smile pulling at the corners of his lips was a clear indication he knew what she wanted to do.
“No sweat, Professor. She just needs someone to talk to, maybe yell at. And it can’t be him. Besides, I knew Taylor, even if it was for just a little while. I can understand the promise, even agree with it. But it was still wrong. Foreknowledge and I are old friends, remember?” She began to walk away.
“Ace,” the Doctor called softly.
“I’m very proud of you.”
Ace grinned. She wasn’t a little girl anymore.
Exhausted, the Doctor leaned back and closed his eyes once again, savoring a peaceful silence he knew wouldn’t last. It never did. He was getting too old for this. Just past a thousand and he was still running around like someone half his age. Time to slow down just a little.
He almost laughed at that thought. As if he had a choice.
A presence familiar from old memories and new sat down next to him. Ward didn’t speak and the Doctor didn’t press him. The man would talk when he was ready.
“Should I be worried?”
Startled by the question, the Doctor opened his eyes. When he saw Ward’s worried gaze fixed on the two young women arguing furiously a short distance away, he relaxed a little. “Very.”
Ward chewed his lip for a moment before calmly pointing out, “Moira has a gun.”
“Ace has at least one more can of nitro in her pack.”
Ward’s soft chuckle was tired, with only a trace of bitter regret.
“Don’t worry. Ace has some experience in these matters.”
“Time Lord,” it was a statement, not a question. “I take it you’ve done something like this before?”
The Doctor shrugged. “Often enough. Variations on a theme. I’m surprised Taylor, your mother, knew that. The Master is hardly the type to explain himself to those he used.”
“He didn’t, not to Mother anyway. Apparently he liked to rub Philip’s nose it. Bragging rights I suppose. And Philip had…has…a big mouth.”
“Small brains can only hold so much information. If the vocal cords didn’t act as a pressure release valve, their skulls would pop. Very messy. Absolute hell on carpets.”
Ward laughed outright. It felt strange. He hadn’t laughed like that in months. Or was it years?
The girls were quiet. Standing close together, their voices were whispers now, a conspiracy in the making. Ace was smiling and astonishingly enough so was Moira. Then Ward heard Moira’s unmistakable giggle.
He didn’t know whether to be relieved or alarmed.
Neither did the Doctor.
“Can I ask you a question?”
The Doctor noted the faint hint of dread in the man’s voice. If it was the question he’d been expecting, he wasn’t surprised. “Only one? I’m impressed.”
“You are as impossible as this entire situation,” Ward said without spite. He even smiled briefly with amusement. Then he sobered. “Why?”
“Why did the Master do it? Or why to this whole ridiculous sequence of events?”
“Do you have a few centuries?” The Doctor’s broad grin was pure deviltry. It had always been his way, combating serious issues with flippancy. It was the one constant in his life.
“I don’t know. Do I?”
“Ahhh. The regenerations.”
“Is that what it’s called? Mother wasn’t sure. Only that I would…change.”
“And what did you call it?”
Ward grimaced. “Painful.”
“It is that,” the Doctor said softly. Neither of them was referring to the purely physical. Given the circumstances, the Doctor decided it was best to give the man a simple, straightforward answer. Ace would have been shocked. “Barring accidents, you have the ability to regenerate twelve times.”
Ward began to curse. A loud, colorful stream of invective that, clear as any roadmap, illustrated the journeys of a long unusual life. There was Old English with a smattering of Gaelic. French, German and a little Swedish to give it a European flair. Then came Chinese with a healthy dose of the Indian sub-continent thrown in for good measure. Jumping to the New World, the TARDIS translators lost it somewhere around Navajo.
Or was it Hopi? Even the Doctor, an expert linguist when it came to human languages was left wondering where one ended and the other began. The Doctor was suitably impressed.
So were Ace and Moira. Whatever they had been discussing was laid aside to marvel at the spectacle.
“He’s good,” Ace commented respectfully. She had caught a few translations before the poor TARDIS had given up the ghost. The Tai equivalent of a certain physiologically impossible act was her particular favorite.
“He’s pissed,” Moira responded. “What could the Doctor have said to set him off?”
“Knowing the Professor, it could be anything. One way or another he always manages to get somebody mad at him.”
This quiet speculation didn’t stop either of them from taking notes. Translations would come later.
The cursing came to an abrupt halt and not because Ward had run out of ammunition. There was a great deal more where that had come from. It was a far simpler reason.
Even with a respiratory by-pass, Ward had run out of air.
Oxygen supply replenished, he continued. To the TARDIS’ relief and the girls disappointment, it was far less colorful but no less heartfelt. “Eight more times! No! Absolutely not! It’s bad enough getting to know yourself all over again just as you were getting comfortable with the old one! I’m tired of watching people die! Sixty, Seventy years and then their gone! Have you any idea what that’s like?”
Ward didn’t bother to consider that the Doctor may already understand and mourned as well, he was too busy venting his own spleen. “The family doesn’t make it any easier. Five, maybe six extra decades, but it all ends the same! They’re gone too! I don’t want it anymore! Take it back!”
This childish outburst, therapeutic though it was, came to a sour finale. Ward almost bit his tongue. The Doctor had vanished. Not physically, the enigmatic little man was still sitting beside him barely four inches from his shoulder. But his presence, the mental awareness of being next to another living, breathing creature was gone.
Seeing the flat, hooded expression in the Doctor’s gray-green eyes, Ward couldn’t help but shiver. That look was fierce and cold. He made a quick mental note.
Never, ever get this man mad at you.
Reviewing what he had said over the last few minutes wasn’t easy. Uninhibited cussing tends to roll off the tongue without thought. Ward didn’t think he’d said anything too offensive. He felt it best to apologize anyway. “Look, if I’ve violated some tedious, racial taboo, I’m sorry. I’ve had a great deal on my mind.”
“No, no. Not at all,” the Doctor told him. His reassurance was as patently false as the empty smile he gave him. “This Anne person, is she a physician?”
“My mother,” Moira interrupted. Both girls had decided now was the best time to join the party. Moira smiled tentatively at her uncle before continuing, “She’s the family doctor. MD, Ph.D., you name it. She’s got the letters.”
“Genetics?” the Doctor asked, his voice still frighteningly empty of emotion.
Moira looked at Ward, who nodded for her to continue. “She worked on the Human Genome project for awhile. She’s very respected.”
“Indeed. She and I need to talk.”
“There’s nothing she’d like better,” Ward said, still bewildered by the Doctor’s sudden coolness, but willing to let it go. For now. “Be prepared. She has a lot of questions.”
“I’m sure she does,” the Doctor muttered. Then the veil lifted, the darkness gone as he glanced, eyes twinkling merrily, at his companions. “It’s all rather anti-climactic, isn’t it?”
Ward and Moira were left confused by the sudden change.
Ace, who had witnessed these shifts from dangerous and mysterious stranger to harmless little man before, took it all in stride. She’d explain it all to them later. Or maybe not. Even human’s liked to keep their secrets.
“I have a question I’d like answered,” Ace said.
Feeling magnanimous, the Doctor grinned. “Go right ahead.”
“Not you. Him.” Ace pointed at Ward.
The Doctor was crushed.
Ward was bewildered. “Me?”
“Yeah, you. I want to know about the gun.”
“This gun?” He pulled the revolver he’d picked up in the Master’s TARDIS from his pocket. “After all that’s happened, you want to know about a gun?”
“Exactly. We’re in the middle of a fire, about to be taken God knows where, and you waste precious seconds snagging a broken gun. Why?”
Moira was furious. “You risked your life for a gun that didn’t work!” She bit her tongue, wishing she could take those words back. It was too soon. What if he was still angry with her?
Ward only tisked at her, “Shame on you. What have I taught you?”
“You’re as bad as the Doctor!” Ace snapped. “Just answer the question!”
Ward grinned at the Doctor. “I think she’s upset with me.” The haunted expression was gone from his eyes, a playful spark now dancing where ghosts had once reigned.
“I’m beginning to understand how she feels,” the Doctor muttered dryly.
Ward turned the revolver over in his hand, weighing it and his words carefully before answering. “As a child, I never really understood the concept of guns. Mother tried, but it still sounded like something far too god-like for my tastes. When science finally caught up with what she had told me, the sequence of events, she knew I’d understand. I did. Apparently others…” he glanced pointedly at Moira, “…didn’t.”
“Get on with it, old man.”
Forgiven, if not forgotten, the two were back to their old, well-loved game.
Ward held the gun up so they all could see it. “This little monster is a Colt Lawman MK III, 38 special. Six shot, two-inch barrel, swing out simultaneous ejector. They stopped making them somewhere around the mid-eighties. I’m not even going to bother asking where Philip got hold of it.”
“I thought you didn’t like guns,” Moira said.
A simple statement the Doctor was relieved to hear.
“I don’t,” Ward said. “I just like to know the name of the snake that bit me. Better safe than sorry. And I wanted to answer this question when the time came. I’m probably the most reluctant expert on this planet. This was fired twice, correct?” he directed the question towards Ace.
“Three times. The Master tried to use it after Taylor…left. What does it matter? It didn’t work.”
“Here’s a variation on a basic rule of fire arms, one Moira seems to have forgotten.”
Moira stuck her tongue out at him.
Ignoring her, Ward continued, “There’s no such thing as an unloaded gun. Therefore, by extension, there is no such thing as a gun that doesn’t work. Doctor?”
As curious as the girls as to where this was going, the Doctor answered, “Fair witness. I saw the Master pull the trigger and the hammer fall. Nothing happened. Since Kevin’s gun fired, and the Master was convinced the one he held would as well, I can only conclude his TARDIS suppression systems were malfunctioning or switched off completely.” At Ward’s puzzled look, he added, “Temporal grace. I can explain if you’d like.”
Ward shook his head. “Irrelevant at this point, I think.”
Carefully, he swung the cylinder out and examined the firing mechanism. He was silent for the few moments it took to satisfy himself that everything was in order. Then he looked at the cartridges still in the cylinder. He didn’t blink. He didn’t seem to breathe. He just sat there staring at the open cylinder of the revolver.
His face an unreadable mask, Ward turned to the Doctor. “Does the term Hang Fire mean anything to you?”
“I’m afraid not. I don’t like guns anymore that you do. Is it important?”
Solemnly, using his nail and not the ejector Ward pulled out one cartridge. “Hang fire was a term popularized during world war one for rifle cartridges that had a nasty habit of failing to discharge properly. That was bad enough, especially in combat. What made it worse was that when the bolt was pulled back and the user attempted to remove the round, there was a 50/50 chance it would explode in their faces. Hence the term Hang Fire. Between the horrors of trench warfare, the Spanish flu, a budding interest in chemical weapons and poorly mass produced ammunition, the common soldier of either side didn’t stand much of a chance of going home with life or limb intact.”
He handed the cartridge to the Doctor, making sure the Time Lord saw the small indentation the hammer had made when it fell. “Hang fire may be a forgotten term, but others have replaced it. Blank, fizzer, deadshot…” he smiled grimly, “…dud.”
The Doctor rolled the offending object between thumb and forefinger. He had laughed earlier at one of Time’s jokes. He didn’t find this one funny at all. “Then the gun…”
“Is perfectly fine. Clean. Tight. Well oiled. Nothing’s been filed or tampered with. That’s what bothered me about what Mother told me. Philip had to have gotten the weapon from the Master, and he would certainly make sure it worked.”
Ace went pale.
Moira matched her shade for shade.
“I should speak to the manufacturer,” the Doctor said softly.
Ward shrugged. “It happens. Even with modern quality control. Mind you, with the advent of rim fire systems and percussion caps, they rarely, if ever, explode in your face.”
Looking down at the open cylinder Ward flipped the second cartridge out with a magician’s flair. The Doctor was really beginning to sympathize with Ace. “It gets better,” Ward told them.
Ace practically jumped to her feet. “I don’t want to hear this!” She took mortal affront to Ward’s arrogant grin, “You’re enjoying this!”
“Not at your expense, I assure you.”
“Will you get on with it!” Moira snapped. She hated it when he got like this.
Ward tossed his niece the round. “One hang fire is within the realm of possibility. Two in a row, and it’s time to seriously consider switching brands, or loading your own rounds.”
Ace sat back down heavily. “The gun worked,” she muttered weakly.
“Yes, the gun worked.”
“And the final round?” the Doctor asked, although he knew in his hearts what the answer would be.
“Three out of six?” He pulled the last cartridge out and handed it to Ace, who took it in a hand that was shaking only slightly. Ward closed her fingers over it gently. “Tonight, the angels never blinked.”
Ward carefully positioned the next unfired round and closed the cylinder. Making sure the safety was on, he asked, “Does anyone besides myself want to know about the fourth?”
“NO!” Ace yelled. Then she thought about it. “Yes.”
“Might as well,” Moira said petulantly. “It would provide a capper to an otherwise disappointing evening.”
Bracing his knee with one hand Ward stood up. “Don’t be a spoil sport, girl. Doctor?”
The Doctor merely grinned. If he had been capable of standing without falling over, he would have bowed. One magician to another, he was starting to enjoy this.
Aiming the revolver away and towards the ground Ward thumbed the safety and gently squeezed the trigger. Like clockwork, the cylinder rolled, the hammer rose, then fell. The gun bucked in Ward’s hand when it discharged. A small clump of dirt, mortally wounded, jumped into the air a short distance away.
The silence afterwards, was deafening.
Once again, Ward pushed out the cylinder. This time he used the ejector to remove the final three rounds. One already fired. Two still live. Without a word, he slipped them into his pocket. Closing the cylinder and flipping the safety back on, he carefully placed the gun in his other pocket.
“Apparently, I have a great many years ahead of me to ponder this question. How may of those years Doctor, would it take you to answer it?”
“Do you want the math or the philosophy?”
“Does it matter?”
“I don’t want to know. Do you?”
Ward shook his head. That one was easy. “No.”
Ace was staring at the cartridge in her hand. A sudden brush with mortality, even after the fact, was enough to get a person to thinking. Her education, she decided, needed to be broadened considerably. The look she gave Ward was determined. “I want you to teach me about guns,” she demanded.
“No!” The Doctor was appalled. An Ace with a talent for homemade explosives was tolerable. Combining that with a knowledge of percussion weapons was a nightmare waiting to happen.
Ward held up his hands. This was obviously something he didn’t want to be in the middle of.
Moira was a bit more practical. “Tell you what. You teach me how to make nitro and I’ll teach you about guns. Deal?” She held out her hand to seal the pledge.
“Deal!” Ace took her hand.
The bargain was made.
Two Time Lords, separated by a gulf of both education and culture, were the only witnesses to this little pact. One, ancient and wise had lived the majority of his life outside the bounds of his own time. The other, not quite so ancient and perhaps only a little less wise, who had lived the whole of his life in a more mundane manner. Both found themselves in complete accord.
They were both horrified.
Ace was delighted. Despite the day’s horrors, the near brush with death and the Master’s machinations, she was absolutely jubilant. Things always managed to work out in the end; all you had to have was patience.
She was one up on the Doctor.
With a triumphant gleam in her eye, she reached over and tweaked his nose. “Gotcha,” she gloated. It felt good to be smug.
Time’s champion sighed, resigning himself to the inevitable. A young woman who regarded blowing things up as a creative act let loose in his TARDIS with a newly acquired skill in firearms. How creative could she get? Visions of bullets loaded with nitro nine left nothing to the imagination.
The Doctor sighed again. Things could be worse.
How, he had no idea.
But they could definitely be worse.
The Doctor was quite certain that somewhere, in a multi-verse infinite in size and dimensions, he was being laughed at.
Time has no sense of humor.
She still hadn’t learned how to laugh either and it didn’t look like she was about to start now. Her three little sisters, Fate, Circumstance and Coincidence, after a jolly good romp, were laughing themselves silly. Captured, spanked and exiled once again to their separate realms of influence, they were totally unrepentant. Fate shrugged, It was meant to be. Circumstance waved an airy hand, These things happened. Coincidence giggled, Who, me?
Time really couldn’t blame them. Intelligence, a vastly over-rated and under-used universal commodity, was the true culprit. The three could only work with ready-made material after all.
Time simply wished they didn’t enjoy these little chaotic escapades so much.
And what about the next time?
The weave, for now, was calm and steady. There were no knots, no strands left un-woven. A few remained unresolved, with choices left to be made and courses left to be charted. Even Time couldn’t know their future. Detestable Chance –the arrogant reprobate- saw to that.
For certain, there would be a next time.
And the next.
And the next…
At the very least, the future wouldn’t be boring.