"We must remember that in nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences."
Robert Green Ingersoll
The Doctor has a new project. He hasn't actually said so, but the symptoms are all there. He spends hours immersed in the TARDIS's data banks. If Jack just happens to glance over the Doctor's shoulder, he can see that the data screen is filled with Gallifreyan text. The Doctor is a genius. He can read thousands of languages (millions, he claims) without the aid of the TARDIS translation circuit. But like any sentient being, he prefers to do extensive reading in his own language.
Another symptom: they've been making brief visits to a lot of planets. There's no apparent connection between them, except that they have humanoid populations (just like eighty-two percent of this galaxy) and are at Level Five or lower on the P'r'tt Technology Scale. Each time the TARDIS materialises, the Doctor excuses himself ("Don't mind, do you, Jack? I won't be long") and disappears for a few hours. When he returns, he says nothing about his errand. Sometimes he looks satisfied, sometimes frustrated, sometimes outraged. He never looks happy after one of these expeditions, but he always comes back safely; no bruises, no knife slashes in the pinstriped suit, no pursuing mob of angry natives with sharp agricultural implements.
Jack doesn't ask questions. For one thing, this new project means that he isn't the Doctor's project any longer. Five months after Jack left Earth, the Doctor found him in the worst dive in the Morag mining colony, hiding from his memories in a bottle of cheap hypervodka. Jack doesn't like to think about the two weeks that followed. With ruthless compassion, the Time Lord persuaded him that he needed to return to living. He isn't healed -- he isn't sure he will ever fully heal -- but he's functioning. It helped to tell his story to the only other being in the Universe who has survived this much pain and self-loathing. (Or more. Jack finds that hard to imagine, but he's never obliterated his entire species.)
In between the Doctor's 'errands', they find other things to do. They stop one revolution and start two others, take a beach holiday on Florana, attend the first public performance of Le Triomphe d'Horus on New Thebes, and save the life of a distinguished ambassador who was about to eat a poisoned quiche. (Jack saves the chef from arrest by sampling the quiche. When he revives, he informs the astounded gendarmes that it was seasoned with scurweed instead of hadri leaf -- a mistake no professional cook would ever make.)
It's a calmer version of life on the TARDIS than in the old days, and it suits Jack for now. There's an unspoken agreement between him and the Doctor: this is a temporary arrangement until Jack is ready to decide what he wants to do next. Because they are who they are, 'temporary' may mean three weeks or thirty years.
They're in the console room, and Jack catches the Doctor staring at him. No, studying him. His head is just slightly tilted, and his forehead is wrinkling in a way that means he's trying to make a decision. Jack clears his throat.
"Jack!" The Doctor sounds as though he's only just noticed that Jack is in the room.
"I've got an errand to run. A loose end to tie up." The Time Lord lets out a loud puff of breath. "Well, what I mean is--"
Another sigh. All traces of humour disappear from the Doctor's face, but he's still studying Jack. He is the only person who can occasionally make Jack feel young. In strictly linear terms, Jack has lived longer than the Time Lord, though he's not quite sure that a millennium spent in a grave counts as 'living'.
"Our next destination is Paequorix." The Doctor is watching him for a reaction.
"Never heard of it," Jack says honestly.
"No, you wouldn't have done. The Paequorixi are a secretive race. Whenever they have dealings with other species, they like to do it quietly." He pauses. "You call them the 456."
Jack freezes. Emotions are spinning through his mind like numbers on a carnival wheel: terror, fury, guilt, resentment. Round and round and round it goes... "You told me you didn't know about those bastards! Are you saying now that you did know? And you said nothing? Did nothing?" He feels satisfaction at seeing the Doctor flinch.
"I didn't know anything until Martha was able to phone me," the Doctor says, "and by then the timelines were set."
Jack nods, not trusting himself to speak. He doesn't need a damn lecture about the dangers of changing history.
"I've heard rumours for centuries. Hints, scraps of legends. Almost every culture has tales about monsters who steal children. 'The Bogeyman will get you... the Namahage, Creeper-in-the-Dark, the Man-with-a-Sack, the Cold One...'" He lets out a mirthless laugh. "Even on Gallifrey. That's where the Master got the name 'Toclafane', you know. Some legends are only stories."
Right. The high and mighty Time Lords never had to worry about monsters stealing their children. "So, this is what you've been researching? All of those worlds, when you slipped away--"
"--were planets that have been victims of the Paequorixi. Did you think Earth was their only target?"
There's no accusation in the Doctor's voice, but it's Jack's turn to flinch. No, I didn't think about other worlds. I was a little bit busy figuring out how to save 35 million kids from alien monsters and their own governments. He considers this new information. "None of them above Level Five."
The Doctor nods vigorously. "The Paequorixi are bullies and cowards. They don't target civilisations that are able to fight back. In all of the attacks that I've been able to document, there have only been two worlds where they got booted out. The first was Agrataia Delta. Not big on technology, the Agrataians. Stone knives and bearskins -- weeellll, not bearskins exactly, but you get my meaning. They're very strong telepaths. Never a good idea to annoy telepaths." He speaks without the slightest trace of irony.
Jack thinks about the Master and the Archangel Network. "Yeah. Bad idea."
The Doctor doesn't notice the sarcasm -- or maybe chooses to ignore it. "And the other world was Earth. You hurt the Paequorixi on the ship very badly. They won't take a chance on returning."
"Why are we going there?" He knows better than to hope that the Doctor is going to wipe the bastards from the timelines or blow up their sun. "The kids -- Oh, god! Doctor, tell me we're going to rescue the kids -- the humans from 1965 and the ones from other worlds."
As soon as he sees the Doctor's face, he knows the answer. "I'm sorry, Jack. I'm so sorry. It would kill them. They've all been... modified to live in an atmosphere that oxygen-breathers normally couldn't survive, and to allow the transfer of hormones. And changed in other ways. They don't live forever -- that was a lie -- but they feel no pain, and their minds are... they have very little awareness."
"Then what the hell are you going to do?"
"Oh, I want to have a word with the Paequorixi."
On the surface, that sounds trite and ineffectual -- something that gutless bastard Frobisher might have said -- but the Doctor's expression is as cold and implacable as a black hole. Deep inside Jack something feral snarls, anticipating blood.
The TARDIS materialises in what the Doctor says is the centre of the largest city on Paequorix: Urban Complex 11-38. "Come along, Jack." He heads down the ramp towards the door.
Jack hesitates. "Doctor? I'm a pretty impressive guy, but I can only hold my breath for so long." If this really is the home planet of the 456, he's not going through that door without a respirator -- or even a full bio-suit. Maybe a Time Lord can survive an atmosphere full of cyanide and hydrogen chloride, but Jack can't. He won't be of much use to the Doctor if he keeps dying again and again ten seconds after he revives.
"What? Oh! No worries, Jack. This is the off-worlder reception centre. It's set up for oxygen-breathers."
"How very hospitable of them," Jack says as he follows the Doctor out of the TARDIS.
The TARDIS is in some kind of storeroom. It's cold, and the air is stale-smelling but not toxic. The Doctor sonics open the storeroom door. They step into a grey and depressing corridor. At the far end is some sort of waiting area where a few dozen beings are gathered. Jack recognises nearly all of the species present. There are very few humanoids, and no humans. "Doctor, when are we?"
"It's 2010 by Earth reckoning."
Good. Less than a year after he left. Whatever punishment the Doctor is planning will fall on the monsters who targeted Earth, not their many-times descendants. They stride into the waiting room. There's a reception desk at the back. The stern-looking creature behind it is a Mihag. She must be sitting on a very tall stool. Mihagil don't grow to be more than a metre high.
Five aliens are queued in front of the desk. The Doctor ignores them, and addresses the Minhag. "Excuse me. We're here on urgent business."
Angry mutters come from the people in the queue. The Minhag barely glances at them. "You will wait your turn."
"Extremely urgent business," the Doctor says.
"You will wait your turn."
Jack recalls a proverb from this part of the galaxy: A rock is less stubborn than a Minhag. He looks at the Doctor. He's ready to do some ass-kicking, and anyone who works for the 456 would make a satisfying target. Never mind that the Minhagil are a non-violent race of bureaucrats and traders. Some bureaucrats have more blood on their manicured hands than a dozen special ops squads.
Jack studies the aliens in the queue. Two of them are glaring at the Doctor; the others pretend not to see him. "You heard the lady, Jack," the Doctor says. "We have to wait our turn." He steps to the end of the queue. After a pause Jack joins him. What is he up to? The Doctor's usual response to red tape is to ignore it.
The first two people want to argue about their docking assignments. Next is an Ilaph, who spends ten interminable minutes explaining a disputed item on his bill of lading. Then come two reptilian Squerri who seem to be together. The taller of the two slams a document onto the grey plasteel desk. "My payment is incomplete!"
The Minhag replies in a voice as colourless as the desk. "Your cargo was incomplete."
"I brought twenty, as agreed."
"Only nineteen were acceptable. You delayed too long in transit."
"It's not my fault," the Squerri protests. "Engine problems kept me in dock for a month."
"You delayed too long," the Minhag repeats. "The other unit is no longer acceptable. It cannot be converted."
"What am I supposed to do with it?" The Squerri turns to glare at his partner.
Jack's stomach roils as he looks closer at the second alien. Soft eye ridges, brown crest, no clan tattoo. Shit! What he assumed to be a shorter adult is an adolescent Squerri. Not his partner... his cargo.
The Doctor stiffens, then bends down to smile at the youngster. "Greetings, child of the sun-blessed world," he says in flawless i'Squerrin.
The adolescent stares at the grey floor and mumbles, "Greetings, honoured stranger."
"Tell me," the Time Lord says, still smiling, "is there a kin-bond between you two? A debt-bond? No? Then perhaps you do not wish to remain with this hatchling of an unknown mother."
The slaver lets out a howl of outrage and launches himself at the Doctor.
Jack's body is in motion before his brain fully registers the deadly insult in those last few words. He darts in front of the Doctor, getting a choke hold on the slaver, and feels a surge of joy. He's not facing a paper-pusher, a bystander, or a brainless minion this time. This is a child-stealer who profits from misery and ruined lives. "Struggle," he whispers, "please."
to be continued...