Kim looked up at the snake of customers and sighed. She had been signing for the best part of two hours now and still they came!
Her wrist throbbed her a warning. The muscles of her face ached due to an excess of smiling. Her throat was dry and dusty in the sweaty atmosphere of the first-floor bookshop.
The blissful release of the frothy cappucino and the bowl of chips smothered in tomato ketchup that Jim would have waiting for her at home beckoned teasingly from some far distant horizon.
The children as ever, were the reward. All shapes and sizes, smiling, crying, filling their pants, oblivious, knowing, pristine, snotty.
She treasured the moment today when one little girl had wrinkled her nose as Kim signed the proffered book and blurted "You're really, really old!" The pained expression on the mother's face as she hustled her daughter away was a sight to behold.
When next book was placed in front of her Kim knew at once that she had a 'Gusher'.
"Oh this is such a pleasure, Miss Gideon... Jimmy will be so pleased...what a shame he's fast asleep...we've been waiting for two hours you know...he was crying most of the time...exhausted now I suppose...we have all the Kimbo series...I have to read one after his bath every night without fail...he won't go to bed otherwise.. I know them all backwards... He's got all the cuddly toys...lovely characters...Doctopus is his favourite...sleeps on his pillow...If you could just sign 'to Jimmy with love'...thanks...I don't know where you get all your ideas, I really don't...A rabbit and an octopus flying around in a space rocket...brilliant...thank you..."
The excitable mother maneuvered the pushchair containing her snoring three-year old son out of the way with some difficulty and the next book was placed in front of Kim.
She looked down at it:
The Adventures of Kimbo:
Kimbo Meets The Snots
The words from 'the Gusher' lingered in her ears. "...I don't know where you get all your ideas..."
Despite herself, Kim's mind began to drift back twenty-five years...
Kim wandered into the Tardis control room yawning and patting at a recalcitrant tuft of hair that wouldn't go where she wanted it.
"You're going to need these," said the Doctor, tipping something into her hand.
Kim looked at the two small triangular objects and then up at the Doctor, blankly.
"Nasal filters," he said. "The atmosphere out there is a bit overwhelming."
"You mean it stinks," said Kim.
"It stinks," he confirmed.
Kim eyed the filters suspiciously. "These aren't second-hand are they?"
The Doctor smiled tightly then applied his own.
Kim followed suit, tentatively, and was surprised to find that there was no discomfort.
The Doctor snatched up his duffle-coat and activated the door control.
They stepped out on a strange landscape, predominantly white, shot through with blue. It looked like marble but the ground under their feet had a rubbery give to it.
The deep mauve sky was dominated by a huge planet of grey and white. It was three-quarters full and covered with the winking lights of an advanced civilisation.
Kim inhaled carefully through her nose. There was a faint odour, the kind you get back home in the countryside occasionally. But otherwise nothing.
"Where are we? Have you been here before?" Kim asked, as they walked.
The Doctor shook his head. "I've always wanted to come here, to see if the legends are true." He pointed up at the great grey planet overhead. "That is Sontar. We are on it's closest moon, Sontar Proxima. And if the stories are correct..."
He bent down and scooped up a chunk of the strange marbled ground. He sniffed at it, like a questing dog, then nibbled at it. He made a face. "Hmm. Unrefined and raw, of course. But definitely Lactobacillus bulgaricus with traces of Penecillium glaucum."
Kim made a face of her own. "And for the masses...?"
"Gorgonzola...? Are you trying to tell me that we are on a moon made of cheese ? "
"That would be ridiculous,"chuckled the Doctor."No, it's just a crust, about Kilometer or so deep."
"No, really. Its not a natural phenomenon of course. The Sontarans bio-engineered this place. Seeded it with a virus millenia ago. They harvest the surface, refine it and use it for nutrients in their massive hatcheries."
"The Sontarans are a clone-race, Kim. Bred for war. Their numbers multiply millions at a time in the hatcheries. They accelerate their growth and the next batch of soldiers are ready to be shipped off to the front in a few weeks. They need awesome amounts of nutrients to support the process. This moon is a rather elegant solution."
"And you've met these Snotarans before?"
"Indeed. Militaristic, warlike, brutal. They are bent on galactic domination. Fortunately they are rubbish at it. Oh and it's Sontarans, by the way."
"Son-tar-ans." said the Doctor, slowly.
"Snot-ar-ans," repeated Kim, equally slowly. "Look, I'll just call them 'The Snots.' OK?"
The Doctor looked at her for a moment. Then his eyes wrinkled and his mouth twitched. He suddenly let out a great guffaw of laughter. He doubled up.
Kim started to titter then roared along with him.
They were still in this helpless state when they were captured by a Sontaran patrol.
The Sontaran refinery had been barely a fifteen minute walk from where the Tardis had landed, half hidden in a small valley. It was about the size of an industrial estate, with a couple of cooling towers, several blocky buildings and a huge network of pipes that snaked into and out of the ground. It looked brutally functional.
The Doctor and Kim had been thrown, none too gently, into a small box of a room deep in the heart of the site. There was no furniture and they sat uncomfortably on the cold metal floor as the door was locked shut behind them.
They still seemed to be having trouble controlling their laughter, which had accompanied them all the way here. Indeed, Kim had been rendered hysterical with mirth at the first sight of one of the 'Snots' with his helmet removed.
After a while in their cell the inane giggling and chortling subsided at last and they looked at each other with a degree of puzzlement.
"It wasn't that funny really, was it?" said Kim.
The Doctor frowned and seemed to look into the middle distance, as if summoning a memory. His mouth worked silently, as though he was counting. He slapped his forehead.
"Darn it! I missed that decimal point. Sorry Kim, I'm an absolute clot! The answer was in the Tardis environmental read-out all along. The atmosphere out there has a trace compound. Similar to Nitrous Oxide."
"Indeed. Not a natural element. Probably a by-product of the Sontaran refining process. There are pockets of the stuff out there. The filters helped but couldn't deal with it all."
The door clanked open and two Sontarans stood squatly in the corridor beyond.
"The Commandant will see you after you have been decontaminated."
"Commandant?" whispered Kim as they rose. "Sounds like a Nazi."
"Not far off," murmured the Doctor, struggling to his feet.
"Anyway, what does he mean, 'decontaminated'?"
The Doctor shrugged.
They were taken into an ante-room that contained a treadmill which was flanked by two rows of pillars that stretched its length.
"Looks like a car wash," said Kim.
"I don't think you are going to like this, Kim."
"Divest your clothing," ordered one of their guards. He held up a couple of plastic boxes."Place the items in these."
"Now hold on..." said Kim, dangerously. "No way! You can go..."
She was astonished to see that the Doctor had already folded his duffle-coat and tossed it into a box. He was struggling to get his morphing T shirt over his head. It was now adorned by a rendering of 'The Scream' by Munch.
As he reached for his belt buckle she squeaked and turned away.
Her mind was a whirl and she broke out in a sweat. The next thing she knew the Doctor was singing "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" in a particularly gruesome bathroom baritone.
Kim sneaked a look. He was standing on the treadmill, starkers and being sprayed with a variety of coloured water, atomized into mist.
Despite herself, Kim submitted to a pardonable curiosity. Well, he was an alien after all and at the back of her mind...
Her eyes darted. She sighed. Well he looked human enough!
With a complete lack of self-consciousness the Doctor stood at the end of the treadmill being blasted dry by powerful jets of air.
"Most refreshing!" he called. "I'm afraid you might as well, Kim. They'll only force you."
The old Kim Gideon would rather have been struck dead on the spot but the latest edition was somewhat more confident, although had she known about this beforehand she would certainly have worked out for a few weeks!
The various sprays doused her, one after the other. Her skin tingled and felt glowingly refreshed. The jet of air at the end almost blasted her off her feet but she was dry in thirty seconds.
She was not surprised in the least that the Doctor seemed to take not a blind bit of notice (which wasn't to say she wasn't the tiniest bit miffed!).
He was already half dressed when she scowlingly snatched up her clothes.
The Sontaran holding her container seemed to have a look of disgust on his potato-like face.
"And you're not exactly the man of my dreams, Snot!" she said angrily as she dressed.
The Doctor and Kim waited patiently as a guard operated the door control and it hissed open.
"I'll be back," whispered the Doctor out of the corner of his mouth and squeezed Kim's arm.
With amazing nonchalance he strode straight out into the corridor, brushing past the guard. There was a flash of blue light from the Doctor's sonic probe and the door quickly hissed shut and locked. Alarms started to blare. The two Sontaran troopers banged helplessly on the unmoving door, then turned to glare at Kim.
She shrugged. "Nothing to do with me..."
They locked her back in the featureless metal room whilst they searched the Doctor out.
After an hour or so of distant running feet, blaring sirens and more distant running feet they came for her.
"We have him," gloated the Sontaran trooper, hauling Kim roughly to her feet.
Four troopers frogmarched her up several stairways and down a long corridor where she found the Doctor with his arms pinned by two more Sontarans and covered by the weapons of two more.
"Said I'd be back," he murmured as he caught sight of Kim.
A pair of large doors hissed open and they were hustled into a control room, dominated by a Sontaran seated in a raised circular chair. The guards pushed them forward until they stood directly in front of him.
Physically he was no different to any other of their captors but he was distinguished by a small insignia on his right shoulder of his silver armour.
"I am Stynx, Commandant of Battle-Refinery 9."
"Stinks!" exclaimed Kim. Despite their situation she began to titter.
"Cease that prattle!" ordered Stynx. He addressed the Doctor. "Control your female!"
The Doctor dug her in the ribs. With some effort 'his female' controlled herself.
Stynx stepped down to look at his prisoners in turn. "Humans. Even after decontamination your stench sickens me."
"Said Stynx..." muttered Kim.
"You are in a Militarised Zone. Articles of War allow for summary execution. Have you anything to say before I issue the order?"
" If I may," said the Doctor. He stepped forward a little from his posse of guards. "Have you heard the one about the Slugfish, the Warblenatter and a Rutan Ambassador?"
The whole assembly, including Kim, looked at the Doctor as if he had gone mad.
"You insult us!" growled Stynx.
"Just hear me out," said the Doctor, "They all went into a bar, you see..."
He droned on for a while before delivering the punchline to a dead silence, "...and the Warblenatter could never lift up its leg again!"
Kim could virtually hear the breeze blowing the tumbleweed across the room.
Then, one of the Sontaran guards snorted. He tried to contain himself but this was followed by a bellow of laughter. His eyes watered and a tiny bit of green escaped from his nose. Then another two guards, then the rest and finally even Stynx was bellowing and roaring. All the Sontarans in the room were rolling about helplessly on the floor.
"Quick, Kim!" The Doctor threw her a small tablet. "Take that!"
She swallowed it whole as the Doctor flicked a few switches on a small bank of controls.
"Ah, good. Communication system." He spoke carefully into a small grille and his words echoed around the base. "There was a Slugfish, a Warblenatter and a Rutan Ambassador in a bar..."
To Kim, it hadn't been funny the first time round and she was similarly nonplussed at the second time of asking.
The Doctor took her hand and opened the doors. "I think we can safely return to the Tardis now, Kim."
They left the control room full of gasping helpless Sontarans, some of whom, it must be said had started to soil themselves.
The story throughout the site was the same with Sontaran troopers lying and wheezing with laughter wherever Kim looked.
There was only one nasty moment when they were confronted by one trooper who levelled a trembling weapon at them but the Doctor soon disarmed him with the old one about the dog with no nose!
"OK – what did you do while you were missing for that hour?" asked Kim as they traipsed unhurriedly back towards the Tardis. "The joke wasn't that funny, surely?"
"I found the environmental control station. You remember I told you about the compound in the air. Like Nitrous Oxide. Well, its a by-product of the refining process. The Sontarans separate it from the nutrient vats and store it in underground silos before rendering it inert. I just released a silo's worth directly into the ventilation system."
"And those tablets prevented it affecting us like the Snots?"
The Doctor shook his head. "I just had my filters and willpower. You had your filters and a placebo. An extra-strong mint actually. All I had. Sorry!"
"Still", he continued, "they'll soon be laughing on the other side of their faces."
"How do you mean?"
"Before I allowed myself to be recaptured – note the use of the word 'allowed' – I diverted some of the compound back into the nutrient tanks. I wonder what they'll do when the next batch of Sontarans are born laughing? Millions of them !"
He paused at the Tardis door and turned to his companion. He looked concerned. "Kim, that mark on your thigh.."
"Oh, it's only a birthmark. I've had it checked out. Perfectly harmless..." Her hand went up to her mouth.
God, he HAD looked!
Kim's mind drifted back to the present and focused on the book open in front of her. She shook her head. She suddenly felt very tired. She snatched her pen without looking up.
"Sorry. Miles away there. What do you you want me to write?"
"Could you dedicate it to the Doctopus, please?"
Kim smiled at the conceit as she did so.
"Thanks. I ought to be getting royalties for this," said the customer.
Kim was only half-paying attention as the book was taken away and another placed in front of her.
Just a minute! That voice; the slightly nasal West Country tone.
She looked up suddenly and half-rose in her seat, just in time to catch sight of a duffle-coat disappearing through the exit.
As she signed the next book a smile twitched at her mouth, unforced and natural.
It had been five years since she had last seen him, at her sixtieth birthday party. That made it twenty five years since she had stopped travelling with him.
And still he was out there, watching over her...