"They're addicted," Jack says flatly.
The Doctor doesn't smile this time, but he nods in acknowledgement. "Inevitable, really. Use a mind-altering chemical continually for a century or more, even if it isn't inherently addictive, and the brain will come to depend on it. Not all Paequorixi are users, but many are, including most of the ruling classes. It's trendy," he adds, without the slightest trace of irony.
"And when they start going through withdrawal?"
The Doctor is silent for a long moment. "About a quarter to a third of them will die. The survivors will suffer varying degrees of brain damage, chronic seizures, short-term memory loss, and psychological damage, although I have no idea what mental instability looks like in a Paequorix." He rattles off this information like a weather forecaster announcing the probability of scattered showers, but there are shadows in his dark, fathomless eyes.
Jack drops into the jump-seat. "So, you need any help rigging this time-lock?" he asks casually.
"Nope. Everything's all programmed and calibrated. It's actually a rather simple thing - not a true time-lock, but a variant on what Davros did with the stolen planets in the Medusa Cascade." The Doctor stabs at a couple of buttons, and equations begin streaming across the databank monitor. They're all in standard 49th Earth notation, but after the first two screenfuls they might as well be in Gallifreyan as far as Jack is concerned. "Easy peasy," the Doctor says, and begins explaining some of the finer points of the device's functions.
Jack frowns. Words shoot out of the Doctor's mouth like protons from a particle accelerator, but the usual manic enthusiasm is missing.
The Doctor notices his expression. "It will work, Jack."
"I know." And he does know. If the Doctor says a piece of temporal technology will work, then it will do. The TARDIS's frequent malfunctions don't really count. Jack knows that the timeship was considered obsolete when the Doctor 'borrowed' her centuries ago. She probably took her first flight into the Vortex about the same time that humans were making the technological breakthrough from bronze to iron.
"It's kinda strange to see you with everything prepared in advance. Not your usual style," Jack comments.
"I don't often have the opportunity. Just as well - can you imagine how boring it would be? Never having to improvise?"
"Personally, I'm glad you were prepared to risk boredom, just this once."
"I... " A muscle in the Doctor's jaw tightens, but he grins and continues brightly, "Yup. Just this once doesn't hurt, but I wouldn't want to make a habit of it. Plan too much in advance and you become predictable."
Jack pretends to shudder. "You, predictable? The Universe might implode."
The Doctor flips several more switches. He bends over the om-comm. "Attention. Forty minutes remaining until the embargo begins." He turns towards Jack, but doesn't meet his eyes. "Wellll... I didn't want to chance things going pear-shaped. They're an unpleasant lot, the Paequorixi. Not quite as destructive as some species, but what they lack in aggression, they make up in nastiness."
"Yeah," Jack says, forcing the word out, because the Doctor will notice if he remains silent. He pushes the memories back, but not before they scorch him with their bitter acid.
The Time Lord peers at a gauge on the console. Without looking up he says, "Jack, would you bring Anaphu in here? Probably best not to leave him alone for too long. First door on the left, where the medbay usually is. Thanks."
Jack grunts in reply, and hurries out of the console room.
I could bask on this rock forever, Anaphu thinks more than once as the glorious warmth seeps into his bones, but eventually he gets restless. A door at the back of the room leads into a much-needed 'fresher. When he emerges, he suddenly notices a wall-mounted bubbler fountain. It's small and utilitarian, but the water is cool, with the delicious tang of proper limestone filtering.
The door leading to the exit catches his eye. Is it really unlocked? He's tempted to try opening it. Not to go anywhere - where would he go? - but just to make sure it does open. He takes a few steps forward, then halts as the handle turns without his help.
The Protector walks in. He looks around the room, and the corners of his mouth curl up. "Nice digs. The TARDIS must really like you." Anaphu politely waits for him to say something that makes sense. The man lets out a long heavy puff of air. "The Doctor would like you to join us in the control room."
Before Anaphu has time to think it over, he blurts out, "The Wise One - why is he called 'Doctor'? Does he heal people?"
The Protector's mouth droops. "Sometimes. When he can." His voice is not exactly angry, but it does not invite further questions. He turns, gesturing for Anaphu to follow.
The Wise One awaits them in the chamber he saw earlier. He's bent over something on the control panel, but when they enter, he straightens and shows his teeth. "Hullo! Feeling better now?"
Anaphu assures the Wise One of his well-being and of his gratitude.
"Good. Molto bene." The Wise One glances again at the control panel, and his eyes grow as large and round as kairy shells. "What? What? What?"
Anaphu watches with alarm as the Wise One dashes around the console, manipulating levers and switches at breakneck speed. The crystal shaft, which had been still, rises and falls with the now-familiar burst of sound and light.
"Doctor, what's happening?" the Protector shouts.
"They launched a missile," the Wise One says. "A missile - at my TARDIS! What cheek!" He pats the console. "No damage, but I think we'll stay in the Vortex for now."
"They probably think they've blown us up," the Protector says casually, as if such things happen all the time.
"As if they could," the Wise One scoffs.
"Yeah, but they don't know that." The Protector turns towards Anaphu. "You okay, kid?"
He nods. "What will he- what will happen now?"
The Wise One answers, "I'm going to put a sort of barrier around this planet - the whole system, actually. No one will be able to leave. And no more children will be stolen and brought here as you were."
Barricading an entire solar system... Anaphu can't imagine such a thing, but he accepts that the Wise One can accomplish it. This ship - it must be a ship of some kind - looks like nothing he's ever seen in Djeyne's Spacecraft of the Galaxy. The technology is beyond what he thought was even possible. It makes him feel even more fearful to speak up, but he must know. "Honoured Sir?"
"Will they be punished? The Devourers?"
The Wise One looks at him with those strange, dark eyes, and does not show his teeth. "This is their punishment."
That's all? He does not dare speak his thought aloud, lest he offend the Wise One, but he can feel his crest bristling with anger.
The Protector steps closer. "They're going to punish themselves," he says in a soft growl. "Without more kids to- to devour, they will be in terrible pain for a long, long time."
Anaphu thinks about this. "Like the wicked spirits in the Abyss? 'Hunger eternal, thirst unending'?"
"Yeah, just like that," the Protector says, and he shows all of his teeth.
"I am glad," Anaphu tells him. "Very glad. I wish I could see them suffer."
"Me, too," the Protector says.
The Wise One is silent, and turns away from them.
They rematerialise - on the surface, this time - just long enough to deliver the twenty-minute warning. The TARDIS sensors detect twenty-three alien spaceships heading out of the system at full speed. A half dozen more are still in parking orbits, with no indication that they intend to move any time soon.
"Idiots," the Doctor mutters.
"They're probably waiting for payment," Jack says.
"Greedy idiots, then."
Jack rolls his eyes. The Time Lord may be a genius, but there are some things that he just doesn't understand about ordinary mortal life. "Most people find money a useful thing when they want to, oh... fuel their ships, or buy new engine parts, or eat."
"It won't be all that useful when they run out of breathable air," the Doctor observes as he guides the TARDIS back into the Vortex.
Jack considers this. The Paequorixi won't maintain the visitor reception centre if there are no new visitors to receive. The aliens will take refuge in their ships, but eventually, power will run out or oxygen scrubbers break down. Hypoxia is a slow, unpleasant way to die, as Jack knows from personal experience. He feels pity for the stranded crews until he remembers what they're being paid for.
The minutes tick by. The Doctor alternates between distracted silence, and long, rambling monologues. Anaphu refuses to return to the solitude of his warm room, and shivers until the Doctor asks the TARDIS to turn up the heat in the console room. She obliges so well that Jack pulls off his long coat and rolls up his shirtsleeves. As usual, the Doctor seems oblivious to the ambient temperature.
"It's time." Jack starts at the sound of the Doctor's quiet words. Out of habit, he checks his watch, which confirms that exactly one standard hour has passed. Silently, he takes his old, familiar place at the console, flipping the controls for materialisation as soon as the Doctor has input their coordinates. As the time rotor stills, the scanner flickers on, displaying their surroundings. They're on the edge of interstellar space, about 600,000 kilometres beyond the heliosphere of the Paequorix system.
The Doctor busies himself with a small device mounted on the console, just next to the helmic regulator.
"Doctor, I want to ask you something."
"Hmmm?" The Doctor doesn't look up.
Jack repeats his question. He can see the exact moment when the Doctor realises he asked it in Rhaedic. The Time Lord gazes off to one side, then nods to indicate that they can speak in untranslated privacy. "Yes, Jack?"
Jack switches to 51st century Panglish, confident that the Doctor will understand it. His Rhaedic is adequate for ordinary matters of bargaining, seduction, or threats (sometimes, all three at once), but he does not want to be floundering for the right word in this conversation. "Your time lock device - does it have a mechanical trigger?"
The Doctor stares at him. "What?"
"Does your thingummy have a mechanical trigger, or does it need some kind of Time Lord telepathic connection to get started?"
"There's a button," the Doctor replies. "Once the circuit is armed, I just have to press the button. Why?"
Jack takes a long, steadying breath. "Then I need to ask a favour."
"Jack..." the Doctor says uneasily, "I don't think..."
He interrupts. "Doctor, you owe me." His voice is quiet, even, and as hard as neutronium. Jack isn't sure that he believes what he's saying. The significant point is that the Doctor will believe it. Manipulation through guilt is an old, useful tool. He doesn't like using it on the Doctor, but right now he'll do whatever it takes to accomplish his goal.
The Doctor looks unhappy. "Jack-" Please don't."Doctor." I'm not backing down."What is it, then?""I want you to let the kid push the button."
"What?" the Doctor yelps. "Let him- have you gone completely mad?"
"It's what he needs."
"You think he needs to carry that memory for the rest of his life?"
"I think that's exactly what he needs. You heard what the slaver said - he's the one remaining 'unit' of a cargo of twenty. The only survivor. We both know what that means." The Doctor winces, but Jack ploughs forward. "And don't give me any crap about preserving his innocence, not after two months on a slave ship. You can't change what he's seen."
"I can send him home with clean hands," the Doctor snaps. "A little more blood on mine will hardly make a difference."
"Or mine?" Jack demands.
The Doctor gives a harsh laugh. "Oh no, Captain. You have a long way to go to match my record."
"So? I have plenty of time to do it in." As soon as the words are out of his mouth, he wishes he could take them back, but guilt and anger give him momentum. "And I don't see why you're making a huge fuss about someone else doing this-" Jack gestures at the time-lock device. "-when it's pretty clear that you don't want to."
The Doctor's eyes darken, and his voice turns cold. "I do quite a lot of things that I don't like, Captain, because they need to be done, and I'm generally the only person who can do them."
"I do not want to hear about the burden of the Time Lord," Jack snarls. "There must be some other evil you can vanquish without compromising your high and mighty morals. I don't even know why you came here."
"I did it for you!" the Doctor shouts.
Jack staggers back, as though the words are a physical blow. He stares at the Doctor. A short, simple sentence - in his own native language - so why does he feel so bewildered?
"I did it for you," the Doctor repeats, sounding weary. "I thought if you saw them dealt with, it would help you heal."
Jack shakes his head. "It won't. I thought... but I was wrong. If you blew up their sun, sent it supernova-" The Doctor grimaces. Jack knows that the Time Lord could easily do it; his people invented stellar engineering. "-that wouldn't heal me, either." He looks intently at the Doctor, willing him to understand. "Nothing's that simple for me any more. But he's young. 'Simple' still works for him. Having a hand in the... finish will make him feel less helpless. Less of a victim."
"And you?" the Doctor asks.
He shrugs. "Helping him makes me feel less helpless. Beyond that, nothing's gonna do it, except a whole lot of time, linear time, lived day by painful day."
"The one sort of time that a Time Lord has no power over," the Doctor says ruefully, shoulders sagging.
"Yeah. Even a Time Lord can't get me through those days any faster. But a having a friend around gets me through them a little easier."
Anaphu watches, tense and silent, as the Protector and the Wise One speak to each other in a language he doesn't know. He's not very good at reading the faces of mammals, but they seem angry. They get very loud, which can't be good. And then - O Powers above and Abyss below! - they begin to fight, wrapping their arms around each others torsos, and squeezing tightly.
As quickly as it began, the fight ends. They disentangle their limbs, but not before the Protector presses his mouth firmly against the Wise One's mouth, holding it there for eight or ten heartbeats. When they pull apart, the Wise One shows his teeth. "Jack, you're impossible. What am I going to do with you? No. No, don't answer that."
The Protector also shows his teeth. "I may have some suggestions-" He glances at Anaphu. "-later."
The Wise One beckons for Anaphu to approach. In elegant and formal Squerri he says, "Child of the Sun-Blessed World, will you assist me?"
Anaphu can't imagine what assistance he might render to a Wise One, but he replies solemnly, "Yes, Honoured Sir."
"Good. I need three pairs of hands for this. I'm going to input some coordinates. When I tell you, but not before, press that button. Jack, twiddle that knob over there."
"That? But that's just the laund-"
"Sir! Twiddling, sir!"
The Wise One taps rapidly on a keyboard. "Right. Anaphu, now!"
He holds one trembling hand above the panel. To the Abyss with them all! His foreclaw strikes the button with a solid click. On the scanner screen, a cone of blurry, iridescent light appears. It grows, and engulfs the system - sun, planets, and moons - forming a vast egg-shaped shimmer against the blackness before winking out completely.
"Well done," the Wise One murmurs.
"Very well done," the Protector echoes, though he's looking at the Wise One, and not at the scanner.
Anaphu looks from one to the other. "The Devourers are caged now? Forever?"
"Oh, not forever," the Wise One says, "but for a few million years, at least."
"Forever," the Protector contradicts. He looks at the Wise One. "You'll tell me what to do, and I'll put a note on my calender."
They both make the noise that mammals call 'laughter', and though it sounds like the cackling of a grevich, Anaphu feels it stir something inside him. Something comforting, like a sunny rock or a hatching nest. Something strong and vital to carry home with him, and keep the nightmares at bay. Something like... hope.
- THE END -