By Nix Nada
The name's Jek Tavik; it says so on my office door. I don't really need an office, but the clients seem to think it's required. Shows I'm serious about the job. Plus, it's useful to have somewhere to recharge.
Across the desk from me, a woman sobs. Missing daughter: Mary Cadwell. Parents are Second Churchers – strict as they come. Girl most likely ran away, but I'm paid to prove the truth, not guess it straight away. Since I'm paid by the day that suits me just fine.
My processors take in the pertinent details while the organic portion of my mind drifts, trying to ignore the messy human sounds of weeping. Snorts into handkerchief. Apologises. I make the appropriate gestures of understanding. Rewarded with a coy, weak smile.
Job taken, I show the weeping mother out. She thinks I'm merely a private eye – albeit an almost entirely cybernetic one – just one of the hundreds of investigators working here in Atro City. She came to me because my record speaks for itself, but then, it would. I have something the other PIs don't: I'm a time agent. I forfeited most of my human body for the ability to travel in time and space.
I lock the door and slide a small panel back on my left forearm to reveal the time controls. I set the coordinates for the last known location of the missing girl. She had been travelling on a passenger ship to Deva Station, where she was to have taken up the post of chief medical officer. Her last communication came as she was about to pass by coordinates 10-0-11-0-0 by 02 from Galactic Zero, so that was the logical place to begin the search.
What was not logical, however, was that coordinate address. Spacers had many strange tales to tell of that area of space. Ships disappearing, communications received from no detectable source. Crazy stuff.
Not that any of it affects me or the job I have to do. That area of space is empty, dead. Just rocks and dust. I touch my chest thoughtfully, listening to the dull tap of metal on metal. Empty, dead. No, it didn't affect me at all.
I hit a button on my arm and disappear into time.
Into – pain!
It's like taking a high dive into water that turns out to be boiling. I scream; a piercing electronic shriek that a tiny part of my brain still recognises as inhuman, despite the agony tearing through me.
Staring into the time-stream, the light-fizzes of speeding tachyons seem to blur into howling ghosts, their gaping mouths mirroring my own pain.
Pain I should not be able to feel. Most of my body is inorganic. Machines don't feel.
I feel my mind slipping away under the onslaught, but manage to check my computers. They are reading an absence in time, a yawning cavity in space-time. My computers must be malfunctioning – there's no such thing as an absence in time. Things move forward or back – even sideways – but there is no way for something to just disappear from time altogether.
The distortions in time whip at my body, lashing me with the memory of every pain I have ever endured. Phantom pain, then – not real. I only wish that helped me to not feel it, but I do; I feel the pain of every childhood cut and scrape; the crushing blows received in every fist-fight; the surgery that stripped me of my flesh and clothed me in metal; the pain of losing you, of having you recoil from the metal of my new hand, of watching you go, leaving me empty, dead, fit only to hunt throughout time for an infinity of missing girls.
I curl in a ball and sob forever.
In the distance, through the vortex of time, a single light flashes like a tiny beacon. Lifting my head as if by instinct, I make out the minute speck against the swirling void and, with every iota of strength I still possess, strike out towards it like a drowning man swimming desperately towards the surface.
The swirl of the time-vortex dies down behind me as I emerge into real time. My body still feels white hot from the time distortions and I slump, useless, on to a metal floor near a large blue box.
The last sight I see, before the organic portion of my brain finally gives in to the pain and terror, is of a small white light, blinking on and off, on the top of the box.
"Come on, we can't leave him out here. We'll have to take him into the TARDIS. Grab his legs."
I hear a man's voice and feel myself dragged into a seated position.
"Doctor, he weighs a ton." The voice of a young woman. My circuits crackle, not yet recovered. The missing daughter? Unlikely.
"Nonsense, Rose" replies the Doctor. "Bit of exercise will do you good."
My feet land heavily where they are dropped. "What are you trying to say, Doctor?"
"Nothing, nothing," says the Doctor. "No offence meant. Come on, pick up his legs. I've got the heavy end."
A silence for a moment, then my legs are lifted again and I feel myself dragged away, helpless to resist.
What do these two want? Are they scavengers? This area of space has been having trouble with the Amalgam; could they be working for them? If so, I would either be stripped down for parts – if they find the time circuits – or have the organic portion of my brain burnt out and my body used for manual labour. Neither option appeals.
I hear the hum of technology around me as I struggle to regain control of my body.
"Doctor," says Rose. "I think his leg just twitched."
"Fantastic!" says the Doctor. "I thought he was toast, but perhaps there's hope for him after all. Come on, stay with us; we'll have you right as rain in no time!"
I realise this last statement is meant for me. Perhaps they mean me no harm after all. What then - help? Why? Who helps people for no reward in this day and age?
Too many questions, too soon. My circuits dim and I lose consciousness again.
When I awoke, some time later, it was to the sight of a strong beam of blue light, playing across my face. The light shut off and I could see a short haired man wearing a v-neck sweater under a heavy leather coat.
He grinned at me. "Welcome back to the land of the living," he said. "I'm the Doctor."
I struggled into a seated position. The room around me seemed to be some sort of a control centre and was the source of the technological hum I had heard earlier. So this was the TARDIS?
"I feel… different," I said, as the Doctor helped me to my feet. I found he was a full head shorter than me. He, of course, had not had the luxury of choosing his leg length at assembly time, as I had.
"Well, you did take quite a knock coming through the time vortex," said the Doctor. "I've fixed up what I can. I sorted your perception of time for one thing."
"My perception of time?" I asked.
"Yeah, you were stuck in this weird first-person present thing. Very Raymond Chandler. Like I say, I sorted it."
That was what was different. I looked down at the Doctor. "But I'm a private eye."
"Oh," said the Doctor. "Sorry about that. Still, I'm sure you'll get back into it. 'It was a dark and stormy night as Jimmy the Fingers broke into the old liquor store on twelfth street and…' and… I'm not helping, am I?"
"He's up, then?" said Rose, entering the room.
"This is Rose," said the Doctor. "Rose, this is…"
"Tavik," I replied. "Jek Tavik."
"Jek Tavik," said the Doctor, with a grin.
"Is he a robot?" asked Rose, walking over and peering up at me critically.
"Rose!" admonished the Doctor. "That's very rude. Mr Tavik is a cyborg."
"Well excuse me for not knowing the politically correct term," muttered Rose, wandering off.
The Doctor turned back to me, fixed me with a stern look and tapped his temple. "Just don't lose this," he said. "I've seen what happens. Believe me, it never works out."
"What happened to me?" I said.
"Out in the vortex?" asked the Doctor. "I was rather hoping you knew. We picked you up on the TARDIS scanners, in some distress, and tried to guide you in."
I slid back the panel on my arm and checked the data on the readouts. "My computers registered an absence in time which created a sort of whirlpool in the vortex."
"A whirlpool is a vortex," said the Doctor, distractedly. "Where were you, when this happened?"
"I was passing by 10-0-11-0-0 by 02 from Galactic Zero," I replied.
The Doctor stepped back, his face white. He walked away quickly and rested his hands on the large hexagonal console in the centre of the room as if drawing comfort from it.
Rose moved hurriedly to his side. "Doctor, what's wrong?"
"Didn't realise," I heard the Doctor say, "that we were so close."
"You don't want to believe all those stories you hear about that area," I said. "Ships disappear all the time. They're just ghost stories."
"Something that big, it can't help leaving psychic traces," said the Doctor to himself. "Disappearing from time leaves a very long gap which people feel they need to fill. So they invent stories, painting over the cracks in time with half-remembered legends, jokes or stories. Anything, just to fill up the ache of lonely emptiness."
The three of us stood there in silence for a moment. Then, without warning, the Doctor straightened up, turned around, and clapped his hands together.
"Right!" he exclaimed. "Let's see what's out there!"
Rose looked as taken aback as I was at the Doctor's sudden change in mood, but beckoned me to follow them both out of the TARDIS.
Outside, the Doctor locked the door while my sensors did a back flip. "That room," I said, almost feeling my computers seize up, "that box…"
"Yes," said the Doctor, cheerfully, "bigger on the inside. Don't think about it too much; you'll blow a fuse. Come on."
Rose hurried to match the Doctor's purposeful stride. "Doctor," she said, concerned. "How can you just act like none of that happened."
"Because it didn't," replied the Doctor, not slowing down. "That's the point. That's what taken out time means."
"Taken out of – I don't understand," said Rose.
"That's okay," replied the Doctor. "Ah, here we are."
We found ourselves outside a large, sealed door, bearing the words, 'Deva Station Medical Bay – authorised personnel only.'
"Deva Station?" I said. "That was where I was travelling to."
"Lucky you," said the Doctor, pulling a device from his pocket and subjecting the access panel for the door to the same blue light which had seemed to rouse me earlier.
Rose looked up at me as if she wanted me to continue.
"I was looking for a missing woman," I explained. "She was supposed to take up the post of chief medical officer here, but she never arrived."
"Oh, she arrived, all right," said the Doctor, as the door before him opened with a hiss.
We followed the Doctor down an empty corridor. Every so often he would pause and peer through the glass of a door's viewing window, shake his head and move on.
"What are you looking for, Doctor?" asked Rose. "And where is everybody?"
"Have you noticed the tiny little puddles on the floor?" he asked in reply.
"No," said Rose, then she lifted her shoe. "Ugh, yeah – now I have."
"That's everybody," said the Doctor. "And what we are looking for is why everybody is that."
"Ugh," said Rose, again, wiping her shoe on a clean patch of floor.
"Mary Cadwell," I said, "the woman I was looking for – you say she made it here? Did she end up like these others?"
"That's what I'm here to find out," said the Doctor. "Though I think not. Here we are."
We had arrived at an unassuming little door marked simply, 'Storage'.
"A broom cupboard," laughed Rose.
"Watch," said the Doctor, working on the lock with his glowing device. The door opened with a depressurising hiss that seemed quite unnecessary for a storage cabinet and then I saw why.
The room beyond was huge, filled with hundreds of glass cylinders. As we walked into the room I could see inscriptions on the glass and small shapes hanging still within.
The Doctor moved along the nearest row. "Aha!" he exclaimed. "MC60021 – I think we've found your missing doctor, Mr Tavik."
As the Doctor wiped away a mist of condensation from the tube, I could see the shape inside – a tiny newborn baby, floating in some sort of solution. Rose gasped and took a step back, her hand flying to her mouth in shock.
"Too many professionals were getting surprise postings to this station," explained the Doctor, "only for their ships to go 'missing' around –" he faltered slightly, then cleared his throat. "Well, around where you had your difficulties, Mr Tavik."
"The stories of disappearances –" I started.
"Were a convenient alibi for what was really going on here," said the Doctor. He spread his arms out and gestured at the thousands of identical tubes. "Professional babies – every one guaranteed to grow into a little doctor or a lawyer or whatever. After all, they've done it once!"
"But why?" asked Rose.
The Doctor shrugged. "The usual reason – greed," he said. "These babies would sell for quite a high price."
"Surely someone would notice," I said. "There must be thousands here."
"It's a big universe," said the Doctor. "They'll have taken them from all over, so as not to arouse suspicion."
"How is this possible?" asked Rose, sounding sickened.
"Ah, now," said the Doctor, "that's the really clever bit – by human standards anyway."
"You know what happens when a boot print fills with water and you put your boot back in it?" he said.
Rose rolled her eyes. "Yes, Doctor, I'm not quite that dumb, you know." She sighed, seeing that he was still awaiting an answer. "The water splashes out."
"Correct," said the Doctor, "and when you take the boot out again it starts to fill with water again."
"Is this going anywhere, Doctor?" said Rose.
"Somewhere out there, a very large… object… was removed from time," said the Doctor. "Its removal has caused ripples in the flow of time – which means a very big puddle and an even bigger boot."
"That's what I felt when I was travelling here," I interrupted. "Like the time flow was crashing in waves."
"Exactly," said the Doctor. "One of the scientists here must have detected the distortions and figured out a way to harness them. A nice little earner."
"It's horrible," said Rose. "What's going to happen to all these babies?"
The Doctor looked as though the thought hadn't occurred to him. "We could… tell someone?"
Rose threw her hands up in disbelief. "Honestly, Doctor," she cried, "sometimes you are so… useless! If it's not about fighting alien monsters, you don't want to know."
"Well excuse me for seeing the bigger picture," countered the Doctor. "If we don't do something to stop this, those babies won't even exist – those tubes will only protect them for so long – and there are bigger things at stake here than a room full of children."
"Doctor!" exclaimed Rose, visibly shocked.
The Doctor raised his hands in a placating gesture and sighed. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to sound callous. It's just that if we don't sort this out soon, those time distortions are going to spread out from here, killing everyone in this sector of space."
"Is that what happened to the staff here?" I asked. The Doctor and Rose turned to me as if they had forgotten I was there.
"What?" said the Doctor, "Oh… yes – they didn't realise the magnitude of the time distortion they were attracting here or that they would need to improve the station's shielding as well as that of their… merchandise."
"They reverted into those little puddles?" asked Rose, looking down at her shoe with distaste.
"Eventually, yes. I'm afraid so," said the Doctor. "However, I'm more afraid that if we stay here too long, we'll end up like that too."
"We have to get back to the TARDIS!" exclaimed Rose. I was inclined to agree. I had my answer. It would be a bizarre story to have to tell Mary's parents – but then, the truth often is. After all, there was nothing else I could do for Mary, locked there in her little tube.
The Doctor raised an eyebrow. "What about the little babies?" he said to Rose in a rather mocking tone.
Rose narrowed her eyes. "A lot of good we'll be to them if we get turned into puddles!"
I raised a hand to intervene. Their bickering was getting us nowhere. "You're both right – we need to do something to help and we need to get out of here – so I suggest we do it quickly."
Rose swallowed and nodded. "Alright," she said.
"Fine," said the Doctor, turning away.
I could see I was going to have to take charge. "Are you sure you've not both regressed to childhood already?" I muttered, making for a ladder at the far wall that led up to a heavy security door.
"Stand back," I said, putting a foot on the bottom rung with a slight clang that echoed gently through the room. "If this ladder can't take my weight I'm going to land hard."
I made my way up, followed by the Doctor and Rose. Soon, we were all standing on a narrow metal platform before the security door. There was a small, round window set into the door that was blackened and scored. I reached out a hand to wipe the surface for a better look inside.
"No!" warned the Doctor, but it was too late. As my finger touched the glass, it imploded, sucking the fragments into the room beyond. I could hear a noise like a howling gale screaming through the little hole. It reminded me of the sounds I heard in the vortex and my cold metal limbs almost ached in response.
"The glass was aged a great many years in a very short time!" yelled the Doctor, over the noise. "The machinery that's drawing the time waves must be through that door!"
"What'll we do?" asked Rose. "We can't go in there – we'd be killed!"
"Go back down the ladder," I said.
"What?" cried Rose. "Is he planning what I think he is?"
"No, Tavik," replied the Doctor, looking pained. "There's got to be another way. Listen, I'm a Time Lord – I could probably survive in there long enough to sort it."
"And I'm an angry lump of scrap metal," I shouted, trying to scare them away. "Now get down that ladder. Go!"
Rose hurried back down, but the Doctor stayed and looked me in the eye for a long moment. I felt like I was being judged.
"I had this body constructed specifically to survive in the time vortex," I explained. "Whatever's going on in there, I should be able to withstand it for long enough."
The Doctor crossed his arms, looking unconvinced.
"Doctor," I said quietly, "you told me to never lose this," I tapped my head, "but please – for once in my life, let me prove I've not lost this." I laid my hand over my chest, where my heart used to be.
The Doctor stared at me a moment longer, then nodded sadly. "Good luck, Tavik," he said, holding out his hand.
"Jek," I said, shaking his hand in farewell. "My friends called me Jek."
The Doctor climbed down the ladder and I turned to the door. Wrenching the handle, I swung the door inwards.
The room beyond was a swirling mess, the space within warped and convoluted by the strain of the time waves. I took one tentative step into the room and overbalanced, landing heavily on my knees. I groped forward blindly, inching my way through the howling maelstrom.
I lifted my head and tried to focus. Through the tears that sprung up in my eyes I attempted to locate the source of the vortex and managed to make out that the rushing swirl of distortion seemed to settle in the far corner of the room like the eye of a storm seen in miniature. There seemed to be some sort of device or console mounted there. That must be what is drawing the time distortions, I thought.
I reached out a hand and swung it downwards, digging my metal fingers into the floor. Having gained a purchase, I dragged myself forward and repeated the motion with the other arm. Soon I was making steady but painfully slow progress across the room. All the while, the time distortion whipped and battered at the casing of my body until, impossibly, I felt a dull ache all over. The memory of pain again.
I was nearly at the console by now. I swung my arm out again and just caught a glimpse of pink skin before I brought it crashing down, breaking two of my nails.
I howled in pain and clutched my bloody hand. I stared down in disbelief. The time wave had all but stripped me of my metal casing, replacing machinery and computers with my long-discarded flesh and bone. I was whole again!
With every ounce of my remaining strength, I flung myself at the console, ramming my fists down on it, ignoring the pain – no, more than that, revelling in my ability to feel again! I knew I had to destroy it, to stop the fatal pull on the time waves. I smashed my fist down again and again until finally the top of the console caved in.
There was a sound from outside like a thousand breaking bottles, then silence.
I lay there, shivering slightly and clutching my aching hands, my ears ringing.
"Hello?" called the Doctor from the room outside.
"You have got to see this!" added Rose.
I stood, slowly. Without the distortion of the time waves, I could see that the room I was in was just an ordinary control centre, lined with sensory equipment and computer banks. Across the middle of the floor was a line of little divots where I had pulled myself along. I looked down at my hands, marvelling at how new the smooth pink skin looked.
"Jek?" shouted the Doctor, jerking me from my fascination.
I staggered through the doorway and stood at the top of the ladder. For a moment, I couldn't take in what I saw in the room below me. The floor was awash with liquid and fragments of broken glass. It looked like every one of the cylinders had exploded. The room was now filled with thousands of soaking wet, very confused looking, naked men and women.
The Doctor stood beside Rose, his back to me and his arms outstretched as he laughed with joy at the sight before him.
"Welcome back!" he cried.
Rose glanced over her shoulder, saw me, and did a quick double take. She grabbed the Doctor and pointed up at me. The Doctor turned and looked up in shock. Then he broke into a huge grin and started laughing again.
"Jek!" he shouted, waving his arms at the people around him. "You're a dad!"
Laughing myself, I made my way down the ladder and pushed my way through the crowd to join them.
"I like your new body," said Rose.
The Doctor nudged her. "Behave, you," he said.
"Old body," I corrected her, smiling.
"Blimey, I feel a bit overdressed," observed Rose, looking around. "What's wrong with them, Doctor? They look… confused."
"So would you be if you'd been a baby in a tube until two moments ago," replied the Doctor, with a smirk. "They should be alright in an hour or so. Meanwhile, we really should be going."
"Going?" I said, taken by surprise by this abrupt announcement. "But what happens now? I can't go back to being a private investigator. What'll I do?"
"Jek," said the Doctor, "you've got a space station filled with thousands of naked doctors and lawyers and so on, who are very soon going to need some dry clothes and an explanation. Finding something to do is going to be the least of your worries. Come along, Rose."
With that, they turned and walked away, arm in arm.
As they left, I could just hear Rose say to the Doctor, "Couldn't we have given him a lift back in the TARDIS?"
"Certainly not," replied the Doctor. "The TARDIS has a very strict dress code."
As I watched them leave the room, I heard someone clear their throat behind me.
"Excuse me," said a woman's voice. "Would someone mind telling me what the hell is going on?"
I smiled, without turning around. "Mary Cadwell?" I said. "Have I got a story for you."