Martina Rodriguez was having a bad day.
Or at least it would have been bad for anyone but her. The water in her shower was ice cold, the one good shirt she had was near impossible to find, her bus was half an hour late, and the halls of her university were so crowded that trudging through them was like marching through a swamp. And yet, none of that deterred her. Despite all of that, despite everything that was going on, she couldn't help but be thrilled. For today was her first day of college. Specifically, the University of Minnesota.
Of course, it had taken her a few years to get there. She didn't have a scholarship, and college didn't come cheap. But now, after waiting for so long, she was finally here. As far as she was concerned, this was the greatest moment of her life.
Of course, reality was a harsh mistress.
Still, for now, none of that mattered. She was happy, she was here, and she was ready to learn. Her eyes darted between her map and the halls as she searched for the classroom, only taking brief moments in between to adjust her blue jeans or brush her long dark hair out of her eyes.
At last, she finally saw it. She raced over in glee, her white t-shirt billowing in the wind as she hopped through the door and into the nearest seat. She took our her books and slammed them on the desk, only glancing at the clock after the fact. Amazingly, she was still a minute or two early. With everything that had happened that morning, she wasn't sure how she managed it.
At least until she remembered Daylight Savings was a thing.
She slapped herself on the forehead. Just another thing she had messed up. Still, couldn't let that get to her. She was here, and she was on time. Somehow.
She took a look around the rest of the classroom. As much as she didn't want to admit it, it was nothing to write home about. The carpets were of a dull beige, as were the walls. The desks were nothing out of the ordinary, and the same could be said for most of the students. Most of them were wearing t-shirts or sweaters and seemed more interested in their i-phones than in class. Not that she didn't have a phone either, but she knew better than to start texting or listening to I-tunes when there was a class about to start. She was just enough annoyed that she couldn't help but mutter to herself under her breath. "Seriously, what are they even doing here?"
"I could ask you the same question." She whirled to the desk just to the left of her. She could have sworn that it was empty only a moment ago, but suddenly it had been occupied. Sitting with his back straight and his shoulders crossed was an older man who looked like he had stepped out of another century. Either that or he was auditioning for the school play. He was dressed in a black long-coat with red trimmings, with an Edwardian suit underneath. A green cloak was draped over his back, reaching to the midsection. Whatever else you could say about him, he was certainly a snappy dresser
But perhaps the most interesting thing about him was his face. He looked to be in his early forties at most, with only his greying temples suggesting he was even that old. His face was smooth and handsome, even if his cheekbones were a bit sullen. But his eyes? His eyes told a different story. Looking into his eyes was like staring into a black hole. Or a dense fog. They were a dull grey. But more than that, they so were very, very old. As though they had seen more than enough to fill a few dozen lifetimes worth of experiences. And yet, they were oh so distant.
Suddenly she was snapped back to reality. "Um, miss?" The man was still looking at her, though he didn't seem too upset by the fact she had been staring at him for the last twenty seconds. "Hello? Earth to young woman who's been staring at me for the last minute for reasons only God knows?" He waved his hand in front of her. Almost like he was trying to get through whatever was keeping her fixated on him.
"Oh God!" Fuck, she had been staring again. It wasn't polite to stare, she knew it wasn't. But whenever someone interested her, when there was something that drew her attention, she couldn't help it. Or at least not as much as she'd like. "God, I'm so, so sorry! It's just, you don't really look like a student, you know?. I mean, I guess there's a few older guys around, but you're still kinda, well…"
"Spooky? Mystifying? Old?" He barely raised an eyebrow at that last one, as if he was almost offended but couldn't bother to commit.
"I was gonna say 'odd', but those work too."
The man seemed bemused, if not overly so. "That's a new one. Or at least I think so. After you've lived as long as I have, you start losing track of all the different observations and offhand remarks everyone has to say about you. Though I think someone once called me a misbegotten son of a mule. Or perhaps it was a badger. I'm still not sure what led to that one either way. Or maybe I am and I'm lying out of my rear end to save face. Hard to tell with me some days."
Martina couldn't help but be perplexed at his behaviour, though his voice was also an oddity. He spoke in a posh British accent, but his voice was deep and grizzled, nearly betraying his gaunt frame and frail countenance. "Huh."
Suddenly the man briefly looked away in disdain before turning his gaze straight back towards her, almost with contempt. "I'm boring you, aren't I? Of course I am. No-one these days wants to have an honest conversation. To just sit down and talk. I swear, I'd get a more welcoming reception from Doxymous Prime, and that's not a place anyone should go if they can help it. Unless they want the local law enforcement to subject them to 'mandatory fun'. And trust me, contrary to popular belief, having ferrets stuffed down your trousers isn't fun at all."
To be fair, he was far from boring. True, he was prone to going off on wild tangents, but that just further piqued her interest. "That so? Can't say that's a place I've ever heard of."
"Most haven't. Of course, they will someday. Just not yet."
Okay, now he was starting to get just a bit too crazy for comfort. She didn't mind a bit of madness in small doses. Better to be a bit mad than a dull stick in the mud. Still, she scooted her desk away ever so slightly. And yet, something kept her from pushing it away altogether. "You know, if I didn't know better, I'd say you're a refugee from some sort of asylum or something. Certainly act the part."
He raised an eyebrow as if she had somehow insulted him. Still, his expression soon softened as the strangeness of his actions at last seemed to register. "I suppose so. I'm almost not sure whether I should apologize. Occasionally it's somewhat hard to keep of all of humanity's different custom and niceties straight. Or when they're appropriate and when they'll get you a slap in the face. Wouldn't be surprised if you gave me one right now. I'd probably deserve it."
She wasn't sure what he meant by that, but hey, as long as he toned it a down a bit, that was fine by her.
"Hey, it's okay, really! Least you're interesting to talk to. It's the same with me, you know? Like, just last week there was this really freaking big meteorite sailing right past us and I was all over it 'cause of course I am, who wouldn't be, and I tried to talk to everyone else about it and show people videos and stuff, like the sheer impact it'd have if it even grazed us or God forbid there was a full collision, but no-one wanted anything to do with it even though it'd be both really really awful and really really awesome because no-one gives a crap about that sort of thing so you can see why I don't have friends and oh God you're looking at me funny of course you're looking at me funny,, I'm so sorry—"
"Whoa, whoa!" The man held up his hands as if blocking a tremendous assault. In a way, it was an assault on the senses, and part of Martina knew it. But she just couldn't help herself! "One thing at a time, alright?"
She knew it. Someone she thought maybe she could be friends with, and she'd already offended him. Not that it surprised her. "Oh God, I'm so sorry!"
"Okay, first thing's first, stop saying that. I used to say that all the time and let me tell you, by my next lifetime I was so sick of it I barely said it again. "
'Lifetime'? Oh whatever, she was too ashamed and nervous to care. "Okay. Just, didn't mean to go on rambling, it's just that whenever there's something I'm into, I can't help but start gushing about it and sharing it with everyone else! Problem is, most people aren't into the same things I'm into."
"Oh, please! Don't apologize! Besides, you've got nothing to apologize for."
She blinked. She had always been berating herself for going off on tangents or wasting other people's time. But now, here was someone saying it was okay? "Really?"
"Of course. In fact, comets are incredibly fascinating. Though if I said why, you'd probably start backing away in your desk again and call me a madman, which wouldn't be the worst descriptor. But you shouldn't be ashamed of feeling passionate about your interests."
"You know, that's the first time someone's said that to me. Well, okay, maybe the third? Both my mom and my besty said it too. But they were just trying to make me feel better. Guess I can't blame 'em."
The man's already hard eyes appeared to grow ever harder, and yet there seemed to be a sliver of concern. That, she wasn't expecting. "Now why would you say that?"
"Well, I've always been into astrology, you know? Always wanted to see what was out there. Part of it's because, well, it's gotta be better than here. Global warming, the one percent, whatever our administration's doing. But it's also just so cool! Entire balls of light made outta gas! Bigass black holes that can suck you in and turn you into paste! Whole other planets that no-one's ever really been to!" The man gave just a hint of a smile, almost as if he knew something she didn't. But she was too busy gushing about her favourite subject to care. "It's just so amazing!"
For the first time he met her, the man seemed pleased. If he wasn't so sullen, she'd swear he was ecstatic. "It is, isn't it? I swear, you're probably one of the first people I've met who was genuinely interested in all of that before they saw the real thing. It's quite extraordinary."
"Really?!" Martina was all too willing to keep delivering her spiel, though she couldn't help but notice something off about that second to last bit. "Wait, what now?"
It took a moment for the man to realize his mistake. He gave out a hollow chuckle, the corners of his mouth almost looking like a leather mask as he forced them into a smile. "Oh, well, obviously I meant looking at it through a telescope! Or satellite footage! Because anything else would be silly, wouldn't it?"
"Uh, I guess?"
"Right! Of course! Very good!" The man continued putting up the act until it was clear he really was looking like a madman, taking a deep breath before regaining his composure. "But that said, I was being honest. You really are something. And the next time someone says you aren't, you tell them to go screw themselves. Because you are."
She wasn't sure what to say. She wasn't sure if even her own mother had been this supportive. But here was a man she had only just met telling her she was worth something. "Uh, wow. Thanks."
"Oh, no need to thank me. I'm just telling you what everyone else should. And that's a fact. So, what's your name?"
"Oh! It's Martina. It's-" Suddenly there was a loud beeping in his coat pocket. Almost like an alarm clock. "Uh, you gonna get that?"
The man briefly wondered what she was going on about before putting two and two together. "Oh, no! I mean yes. No, it's not a phone, but yes, it's beeping." He reached into his pocket and pulled out what looked to be a small cylinder. It was covered in black and silver, vaguely shaped like a screwdriver but only if you squinted. There was a bright green light flashing intermittently at the top and was the source of the beep from the way it was screeching at them. He didn't fail to notice the other students giving them strange looks, which only ceased after he pressed a small button on the side and made it stop.
"So is that a pager or something?"
The man's smile and brief show of compassion had faded completely, his focus almost entirely on the device. "Something like that. Only not really. It's a lot of things, actually."
"Well, whatever it is, it looks really darn cool!"
The man's gaze briefly flashed towards Martina, just enough to show that he was pleased. "It does, doesn't it? Sonic screwdriver. Of course, it's more of a multipurpose high-functioning doodad. But that doesn't really roll off the tongue." He got up from his desk as he tapped the button lightly. It started beeping again, but much more softly and at a considerably lower frequency. He slowly mosied around the classroom, moving forward if the device beeped any faster and turning away if it slowed. Like a game of Hot and Cold.
"So, is it some sort of metal detector or something?"
The man didn't halt his search, though he wasn't so focused that he couldn't give her the time of day. "Sort of. It can also detect energy emissions, radion emitters, and nearly everything under the sun. Though it has to warm up for the more complicated things. And plastic. Never know when a mannequin will start shooting at you and ruin your day, will you?"
Well, that sort of made sense. I mean, she wasn't sure what a 'radion' was, but she'd heard of new-fangled doohickies that could detect energy and that sort of stuff and what was that about a mannequin? "Uh-"
Suddenly he raised a finger and hushed her, the device starting to blink and beep more rapidly than before. "No talking. Very busy. Talk later."
Okay, this was a sudden about-face. He'd been rather personable up to this point if somewhat weary and slightly guarded, but suddenly he was trying to shut her out? Whatever, it wasn't as if she hadn't gotten a bit tetchy when she was focused on something. Though she at least tried to be nice about it. But hey, they'd only just met, and he only acted like a jerk once. Okay, maybe twice. Three times tops? Surely she could give him the benefit of the doubt.
"There!" Suddenly the beeping consolidated into one long shrill, which had him so engrossed that not even the entire class pressing against their eardrums could get him to stop. Thankfully he clicked it off a moment later, though it didn't divert his gaze from what was right in front of him. Specifically, the chalkboard.
"So, any reason you're just staring at an empty chalkboard instead of doing something productive?"
The man kept on staring at it, just as she said. Though he at least acknowledged her presence. "It's here. Or was here. Give me a moment." He waved it in front of the board like a magic wand, moving back and forth so as to cover the entire length. At first, nothing. He might as well have been brandishing it about like a lunatic.
But that was when the magic happened. Suddenly, there was a spark. A bright spark like a rainbow, illuminating the far end of the chalkboard. It spread across its' length, twirling and whirling like a light show as it snakes across the surface.
The man kept his screwdriver aimed at it the whole time, grimacing as he tightened his grip. Almost like he was trying to reign it in. "Come on, come on! Reeling in the Besamutha Nebula wasn't this hard!" Before Martina could ask what a Besamutha nebula was, the light exploded out of the board, coalescing into a luminous multicoloured sphere of light. It shrieked and shrilled, floating in the air like a lure. The entire class was in awe. As was Martina.
It remained there for a moment, almost like it was getting a grasp on its surroundings. It was so entrancing. Mystifying even. Like a bright and majestic star that could be held in the palm of her hand. She couldn't help but slowly move out of her seat, even when the other students stayed put. It was only when she was a few feet away that the man put out his hand, signalling her not to move an inch. "Don't touch it!" he whispered. "It's only staying put because it's disorientated. Being pulled out of the second dimension and forced back into the third will do that to you."
Even as the man said that, she couldn't take her eyes off it. It was too wondrous not to. "But it's so gorgeous! Kind of like, I don't know, a rainbow? A rainbow in a ball? Okay, maybe not the best description, but-"
He held up another finger, hushing her even more loudly than the last time. "Quiet!"
"But it's so frigging cool! I mean, that is the sort of stuff I've dreamed about you know? It's like all the best things about space and the universe and everything all in a cute little package! Like, seriously, it's adorable!"
Suddenly the light zoomed out of the room, passing through the walls and zipping over the lawn. "Damn!" The man pressed another button on his screwdriver, turning the button on top red and making it beep again as he ran towards the door, presumably to chase after it.
"Hey! Where ya goin'?!"
"Can't stop, gotta find it, no talking!"
From the looks of it, he was deadset on chasing after it no matter what anyone else said. Not that she didn't want to see it again either, but should he really have been going after it half-cocked? She didn't even know what it was.
But he sure seemed to.
"Look, at least tell me what it is, okay? I mean, obviously it's not me going batshit insane because everyone saw it. So maybe it's from another dimension or it's an alien or something because part of me really wants to believe all of that stuff exists. So don't you dare tell me it isn't or that I'm fucking nuts because I know I'm not. 'Cause you'd straight up be crushing a girl's heart, and I don't think you want that on your conscience! Do you?!"
The man had just opened the door when Martina went on another tangent, and he couldn't help but be the slightest bit exasperated at her ramblings. "Look, Molina—"
He drew his hands over his face, clearly wanting to do anything other than deal with some girl wanting him to explain everything. And she knew that right now, that's probably what she thought of her. But she couldn't let this slip out of her hands.
"Martina. Look. You're brilliant, you really are. And any other day, I would love to go over this with you and go on and on about the wonders of the universe and how amazingly brilliant I am. But right now at this very moment, this thing is flying and zipping around like a canary on crack cocaine! But eventually it won't and eventually it will get its bearings, and when it does we will all be in very deep trouble! So I would appreciate it if you would let me do my job and keep it from screwing everyone over, and then we can all discuss the details over tea and biscuits! And yes, I still love tea and biscuits, everyone should, and you had better not have a problem with that!"
The two glared at each other for the longest time until the man finally relented. He took a deep breath, mussing his hair as she muttered some sort of mantra under his breath. "…be kind, be kind, never cruel or cowardly, be kind, days like crazy pavings…"
He took another breath, finally calming himself as he gave her a much more understanding look. "Look, Martina. I'm sorry if I snapped. Which I did, and I truly do apologize. And yes, I know I said not to do that, so please shut up. But this thing is dangerous. And I don't want you or anyone else getting hurt. Once I've got this sorted, I can tell you everything you want to know. But for now, all I'm asking is that you trust me. Because I trust that one day, you will be absolutely brilliant."
She didn't want to just let him go. Didn't want to just ignore whatever was going on. But from the way he kept going on about it, it was clear this was serious. Whatever it was. And that he didn't want her getting hurt. And her mother probably wouldn't want her endangering herself either. "Alright, fine. Just, promise me you'll come back. Okay?"
"Okay. And don't worry. I'll come back. I wasn't exaggerating when I said you were extraordinary." He was about to leave when Martina remembered one very thing important thing.
She had never gotten his name.
"Uh, sorry, but one last thing. What's your name again?"
"Oh, right. So, Doctor John, Doctor Smith, Doctor—"
"Just the Doctor." He turned away again, briefly stopping to give her some final words of assurance. "See you after I've dealt with the latest alien monstrosity of the week."
And then, with a final slam of the door, he was gone. And despite what he said, she wasn't sure if she would ever see him again.
She should probably have done as she was told. Should probably have stayed put. Should probably have done any number of things.
"Fuck it." She chased after him. And fuck what she should have done.
She could only hope she was still in one piece for her mother and besty to chew her out afterwards.