Dr. Kristin Westphalen was quite relieved when she was finally able to sit down and put her feet up. She'd never admit that to Cynthia, however. Her daughter had been the one to insist she finally go home rather than stay at the abandoned church that served as their current recovery and deployment centre. Given the choice, Kristin would have stayed behind. Her medical knowledge was a sight better than her daughter's, after all. But none of the refugees they'd smuggled out this time had had any dire medical conditions, and they were about ready to let the last of this most recent group move on.
The Westphalen home, after all, was only a temporary safe house, and they could only ever keep a few people with them without arousing suspicion. The people they helped might not be hunted in America as they would be in their own country, but they couldn't keep everyone under their roof while waiting for their refugee status to come through. It could take years. That was why their home, equipped as it was with various pieces of medical equipment, was reserved for those who needed constant medical care.
With no one requiring such care, it was currently empty, and blissfully quiet.
She ought to be planning out the details of their next mission, but her exhaustion was as much mental as physical. Besides, Cynthia knew more about that than she did. And it had been far too long since she'd had the luxury to lose herself in a good book. That was, though rather selfish, what she had planned now.
It did not take Kristin long, however, to realize that she wouldn't be able to read in peace. Now that she finally had a moment of quiet, her mind kept wandering back to words she'd read scarcely two days ago. Those words had been in the paper rather than in a book, but she could see them more clearly than the words on the book's pages in front of her. Closing her eyes didn't do any good, either. She could see the story in her mind's eye, and she couldn't forget its heart-wrenching content.
SeaQuest, and every member of her crew on board, was missing.
The UEO hadn't wanted to disclose the information, but it had gotten out. There had been rumours before, when seaQuest hadn't turned up at scenes she'd normally be called to, but the UEO had made its excuses, fabricating reasons and even phoney transmissions. Kristin had no doubt the UEO officials had used Nathan Bridger's idea for that last one, seeing as he'd suggested a similar tactic the time Lucas and a number of UEO officials had been effectively kidnapped at a summit meeting by none other than their own secretary general. It had been Bridger's idea to show a video of them touring seaQuest to placate the press while they worked out what had happened. It had worked.
But now, to have a similar tactic pulled on them and then to have it fail, to know it had all been false…. That felt terrible. The UEO had created a patchwork of Bridger's words, stringing them together into new sentences to create a speech he'd supposedly given. She'd never had the chance to see it when it had been aired—she'd been pulling a double shift looking after their charges—but Cynthia had caught a glimpse of it, and she'd passed on the message, and she'd….
She'd believed it. She hadn't thought something was wrong. It was silly. Non-scientific. Utterly foolish. But she'd thought that if something terrible had happened to the people aboard seaQuest, many of whom she'd served with on the ship's first tour, she'd be able to tell, somehow. That she'd know. And she hadn't.
They were missing, and all too often, missing meant dead. Especially when it had been months since the last true record of seaQuest's appearance. If the UEO knew what had happened, they hadn't release it. And if they didn't release it, it wasn't something that shed a favourable light on their organization. Instead, they would just cover up every trace so effectively that no one would be able to piece together what was surely a terrible tragedy.
Which meant that people like her would never know what had happened.
She'd been a fool to think she could imagine the ache Nathan felt when he thought about his son, Robert. She'd thought it was the same ache she felt when she thought about her brother, James. But murdered, she'd realized, was a different ache than missing.
And, being fresh, this was infinitely more painful.
Perhaps she should have signed on for seaQuest's second tour. She might have been able to help. But her successor, she knew, was also more than qualified for the job, even if she was younger. And, besides, Kristin knew she'd done a world of good by helping Cynthia. But she felt…. Perhaps it was guilt, because she could have been there, in the same situation as the seaQuest crew, and she wasn't. Or perhaps it was simply worry. Concern, apprehension, sorrow….
Reading was no good. She'd never be able to read in this state. She shouldn't have listened to Cynthia. She should have stayed. She could have helped. Working would have kept her mind from this.
"And delaying it further would only make it worse," Kristin admitted to herself, but she put the book aside nonetheless. She didn't get up, however; she simply buried her head in her hands and wished she had no reason to grieve.
Oh, if Cynthia walked in now, she'd be in for a lecture. Kristin could hear it. "You can't blame yourself, Mom. You couldn't have done anything. And think of all you're doing here. Being lost with the rest of them wouldn't help anyone, least of all them. So don't worry. We'll figure it out. We'll find out what happened. We'll help make it right. I promise."
A lecture, and a hug, and, more likely than not, a shoulder for the tears that she could now barely hold back.
How could seaQuest be gone? Even if she'd had to be sacrificed again, Nathan would've at least gotten some of the crew off the ship if at all possible. And if he hadn't, then that meant…that meant…. There hadn't been time, or they hadn't had the means.
Something truly terrible had happened.
She should have kept up her correspondence with the crew and former crew members. They'd been such a tight-knit group, and she'd genuinely enjoyed their friendship. But Cynthia had warned her of the dangers of what she was doing now, how suspicion might fall on them and what they might face if they were suspected. It wasn't that someone would turn them in, even if they did know full well that what Kristin was doing now was perfectly illegal, but rather that someone else might find a suspicious sentence in an innocent letter when they were looking for someone to blame. And some of the people, Cynthia had said, knew her face, if not her name. She wasn't sure how long it would take them to place it.
That was why they had to do what they could before that happened, before Cynthia was forced to stop for a time, until things quieted down.
And Kristin was not going to sit back and do something else when she knew the danger her daughter was getting herself into.
"You worry too much, Mom. I can take care of myself."
Kristin might have been more able to believe that if she hadn't had to watch her daughter nearly die, if she hadn't had to nurse her back to a more stable condition, if she hadn't seen the dangers Cynthia walked into for herself. Cynthia might surround herself with people who would look after her as she would for them, yes, but danger was danger. The risks were higher than Kristin liked, but the reward—the knowledge that they were saving lives, that they were indeed making a difference—was what mattered in the end. That was why Cynthia had found herself in this business, and it was why Kristin had followed.
It was the pounding on the door that finally dragged her back to herself. Kristin got to her feet, shoving her thoughts aside and praying that this visit would not mark the end of their operation. There was always the chance that someone had discovered them. That was why they kept moving, never used their house as a base except in the most dire of circumstances. That was why they had to watch their words, mask their emotions, keep up a façade of normalcy when indeed they were doing nothing of the sort.
She opened the door just as the man had his fist up, poised for another volley of pounding. He was young, and a bit oddly dressed for his age, and she'd never laid eyes on the likes of him before. She could see a few people behind him, but she didn't look at them quite yet. She couldn't. She needed to figure out what this meant first.
"Yes?" she finally asked.
The man was grinning at her. "Dr. Kristin Westphalen!" he crowed, reaching out to grab her hand and give it a vigorous shake. "Lovely to see you again. You've been keeping well, I assume?" Without giving her a chance to respond, the man continued, "I'm the Doctor; remember me? I brought you a few strays. Not Amy and Rory—they're mine—but I think you might recognize the other three."
Kristin caught her breath as the man stepped aside, trying to process everything she'd just heard and everything she could now see.
Scott Keller. Miguel Ortiz. And, though it had been a very long time since she'd run into her, Wendy Smith. The last two still wore their seaQuest uniforms, and all three looked as stunned to see her as she was to see them. A bit bedraggled, admittedly, and clearly tired, and a bit bruised—she could even see that from here—but undeniably alive and relatively well.
Her eyes swept over the two unfamiliar people in the group and back to the first man. The Doctor. The Doctor. He looked utterly different from the last time she'd seen him, but somehow, she didn't doubt for a moment that it truly was him. It wasn't just everything Lucas had found out; it was more than that, somehow.
The impossible happening again, perhaps. Three missing people turning up on her doorstep.
But what about everyone else? Nathan and Lucas and—
"Bit much to take in, I suppose, considering it's short notice," the Doctor said. "Well, considering it's no notice, actually. But do you mind if we come in? It might be a bit of a lengthy explanation."
"Oh, no, of course," Kristin opened the door wider, allowing them entrance, still trying to pull herself from her shocked state.
"Guess you didn't expect to see us again so soon, did you?" Ortiz murmured as he passed her. She managed a weak smile in response, still feeling rather bewildered.
What had happened to seaQuest? Where was everyone else?
When everyone was settled, she offered to make tea, but the woman, Amy, stood up and said she and Rory could do it. "It sounds like you guys need a bit of time to sort things out by yourselves," she said. "We'll find what we need; don't worry."
As soon as Amy and Rory were gone, the Doctor started to speak again. "Right," he said. "First things first. Dr. Westphalen, you do have the facilities to take on a few house guests, don't you? They'll need a bit of medical treatment, I'm afraid. I could only take care of a few things in the time I had."
"We'll be fine," Wendy put in, shooting the Doctor a pointed look. "It's more getting over the shock than anything else. Not much more than scrapes and bruises otherwise."
"Don't listen to her," the Doctor said. "She's still confused. They need plenty of rest for at least a week, and—"
"I'll determine that for myself, Doctor," Kristin interrupted gently. "And of course they may stay. But what happened?"
"Some of the more extraordinary things I'd warned Captain Bridger that you lot might run into," the Doctor said.
Keller laughed and shook his head, clearly having heard more of seaQuest's recent exploits from Ortiz and Wendy than she had from the UEO releases. "Kristin, have you heard of Professor Tobias LeConte?"
The name did ring a bell, and Kristin admitted it. "Didn't he disappear a while ago?" she asked.
Keller nodded. "I disappeared with him. He's an alien, from Hyperion, and we went off in search of new worlds." He smiled at her shock. "It was a while later that everyone else got involved," he said, nodding at Wendy and Ortiz.
"There was a war on Hyperion," Wendy put in. "We were recruited to fight."
Kristin's mouth went dry. "And…everyone else?" she choked out.
"They're not the survivors," the Doctor said, waving a hand at three he'd brought with him. "Everyone else is alive, Kristin Westphalen, and they'll be fine. You just won't hear anything of them for a very long time, because they're not here yet. I can't really tell you much more than that."
"We are the dead," Ortiz said bluntly, evidently seeing her confusion. "Or presumed dead, at least. Missing. According to him—" and here he jerked his thumb at the Doctor "—we never turned up with everyone else."
"I made a promise to Lucas last time I spoke with him," the Doctor said quietly. "I was trying to fulfill it. But to finish that, to really fulfill it and leave it behind me, I'm going to need your help."
"And that's why you're here?"
"That's why I'm here," the Doctor agreed. "Those three are supposed to have dropped off the records. I was hoping you'd help me keep it that way. Besides," he added, leaning back in his chair, "I thought you and your daughter could always use a bit of help."
"We aren't allowed to contact anyone we know," Wendy said softly. "We have no means of starting again without your help."
"They'll have to work under the radar," the Doctor clarified, "so I thought this would work out perfectly. You're trying to keep off the radar, they need to keep off the radar, and when can you not use a bit of help? Besides, you know they're skilled. You've worked with them. Well, some of them. But you don't need to worry about lack of trust or anything like that, so it shouldn't be too hard to put them to work when they're up to it."
It was overwhelming. SeaQuest had been pulled off to another world, an alien planet, and her entire crew, save the people who sat in front of her now, wouldn't return for who knew how long. But they're alive.
And Wendy, Ortiz, and Keller…weren't supposed to be.
"You rescued them," Kristin said. "Your promise to Lucas—it was to save them?"
"It was to try to protect his family," the Doctor answered, "if they were in danger because of circumstances beyond their control, circumstances that had roots in that time I spent with you on seaQuest. I promised that if that happened, I would interfere if circumstances allowed me to, because everything that had happened wasn't their fault."
"Nor was it really yours," Kristin pointed out.
The Doctor shrugged. "But it was my jurisdiction, as Lucas put it, and he was holding me to a rather lengthy record of interferences."
"Well, I can't say I'm sorry he did that," Ortiz said. "Although you could have told us where we were going."
The Doctor sighed. "I didn't want you to argue with me," he said testily. "If I'd told you we were coming here, you would've argued that that was a complete contradiction of my earlier terms about contacting people you knew. But it's not, and I'd rather not explain that five times before you lot finally understand me."
"We wouldn't have argued," Wendy said gently. "We wouldn't have had a basis for our argument. We simply wouldn't have worried."
The Doctor still looked a bit disgruntled. "Yes, well, you could at least have given me a bit of credit, you know. I wasn't going to drop you off with a complete stranger. You'd never have gone along with it, and I'd've been stuck with you."
Kristin's lips twitched into a smile. "Don't go getting into that argument on my account," she said. "You're here now, and you'll be staying here. That's what matters."
"And to everyone else, they'll have disappeared," the Doctor said, sounding cheerful again. "Right. Well, I'll go see how Amy and Rory are getting along with that tea, and you four can hammer out the details." And without waiting any further, he jumped out of the chair and headed off to the kitchen.
It was still hard to keep the tears from coming, Kristin found, though they would be tears of relief rather than ones of grief. "Miguel," she started, "you remember my daughter, Cynthia, don't you?"
Ortiz looked surprised. "Of course," he said. "Do you think I'd forget after what we went through? We nearly—" He broke off. "That's what you're doing now," he said, realization dawning. "That's what the Doctor meant."
"That is what we're doing," Kristin agreed, "among other things, ones just as illicit and just as necessary." For the benefit of the others, she added, "On seaQuest's first tour, we received a call to apprehend emerald smugglers." She paused, then said, "It turned out to be a submarine full of children. Political refugees. They were led by my daughter and an ally who had barely survived his own childhood in the same circumstances, and they were doing all they could to help the children escape certain death."
"We'd be happy to help," Wendy said, reaching over to squeeze her hand, "however we can and as soon as we can. Do you have people who need care now? I'm not so bad myself that I can't help someone who's in worse shape than I am."
Kristin smiled. "I appreciate the offer," she said, "but I think you'd best rest. I was sent home for the same, and I hardly think you're in better shape than I am."
Wendy chuckled. "I suppose not. But I'd like to join you when you return."
"If you're still up to it, I'm sure Cynthia would appreciate another pair of hands." Kristin eyed the younger woman critically. "But you may want to be careful or she'll see you in a makeshift bed with the rest of them."
This brought a laugh. "I'll bear that in mind," Wendy agreed. "I won't overdo it."
Kristin explained a bit more about what she and Cynthia were doing and got a few more details out of the others about what had happened. It seemed like quite a time had passed before the Doctor, Amy, and Rory came back with the tea, but it was still hot and not overly strong, and she had to wonder whether Amy and Rory had even started boiling the kettle before the Doctor had joined them. The teabags were just in the cupboard above the stove; surely it hadn't taken them that long to find them?
More likely, Kristin thought as everyone settled down again, this was the second pot, and the Doctor had let them visit while the first one grew cold.
"Good conversation?" Amy asked as she sipped her own tea. "I hope we weren't interrupting anything important."
"Oh, no," Kristin assured her. "Just a few old friends catching up on conversation that's long overdue."
"So you're all agreed, then?" the Doctor asked. "You sorted out all the nitty gritty details?"
"Not quite," Kristin said, "but they'll come." She glanced at Amy and Rory before looking back at the Doctor. "And what have you been up to, pray tell? I see you're not travelling alone anymore."
"Nope," the Doctor said. "Now I'm travelling with friends. Other than that, not much is new. Nothing interesting."
"Nothing interesting?" Rory repeated incredulously. "After all we've been through?"
"Standard stuff," the Doctor said dismissively. But Kristin didn't miss the slight shake of his head when he caught Amy's eye, and she knew there was something that they weren't being told.
She supposed she shouldn't expect much else. The Doctor never had told her—or anyone, as far as she could gather—everything. And perhaps, if it didn't directly concern her, she was better off not knowing. She had had her fair share of surprises already. Besides, she had no doubt that the Doctor would be able to sort out whatever trouble was brewing this time. He'd changed since she'd last seen him, but at his heart, he was still the same person.
But time changed everyone, even if it was only slightly, and the Doctor was no different. Kristin had no idea how long it had been, but she didn't think it could be too terribly long. From what she'd gathered from Lucas's research, the Doctor rarely called on people he'd travelled with after he'd left them behind. That he had remembered her when he'd needed her, someone he'd only worked with once, told her it couldn't have been that long. Long enough, no doubt, but not too long.
Kristin couldn't suppress a small smile at that thought. It was a concept that wouldn't have made any sense when she'd first met the Doctor, given how skewed time had become. Recollections of when past events had occurred had shifted, and it had taken the Doctor to sort it all out. Given the circumstances of the situation as she had understood it, they might have gotten off all right without the Doctor's help—providing they docked for a few days quickly enough—but the effects may have caused more lasting damage. Or, Kristin thought wryly, perhaps the unusual events spawned by their encounter with a fragment of time would have been more frequent or severe.
Given the little she'd heard from Keller, Wendy, and Ortiz, they were lucky the Doctor had run into them when he had.
But maybe it was over now. Maybe the effect of being saturated in time had worn off. She couldn't recall anyone saying that the Doctor had said that such a thing would happen, but it was reasonable. If those spores, as the Doctor had called them, were dispersed with each unusual event, then the frequency of the events they attracted should lessen until an equilibrium was reached again.
Of course, by that thinking, it might very well take some time before anyone who had been aboard seaQuest in her first tour to reach such an equilibrium. The initial reaction time, when the Doctor had crystallized the excess spores on seaQuest, had been quick. But Kristin had run enough experiments in her lifetime to know that it could take years for equilibrium to be reached. A few years had passed, and while her life had certainly not been as extraordinary as the fare of seaQuest's crew, she couldn't be certain that everything was over, that the equilibrium had already been reached. She didn't have enough information to make that assumption.
And she rather thought now was not the best time to ask.
She wouldn't get another chance, she knew. Well, it would be unlikely, at any rate. But she wasn't certain the Doctor would answer her. He'd told her that the rest of the seaQuest crew was alive. Unless he had simply meant the ones she knew? Surely not, but…. It didn't bear thinking about. He'd told Wendy about the same, from the sounds of it, and added that they would all turn up in ten years.
Ten years was an awfully long time to wait. A lot could happen in ten years. But, ten years or not, it meant that somehow, impossibly, seaQuest would return. And if she returned to the oceans, then perhaps all the fear-mongering that had been going on recently, which would undoubtedly continue for quite some time, would finally be silenced. SeaQuest may just be a ship, but her presence could temper disaster. People thought twice about doing something when they knew seaQuest might turn up.
Now that she was gone and would be for at least ten years, who knew what shape the world would take?
Well, whatever shape that was, she could at least take part in shaping it, shaving off a few undesirable rough edges. They all could. And, if they did their work well enough, no one would ever know the difference unless they looked for it.
Right now, however, she had company, company she was fairly certain she'd never see again. She was going to make the best of it. Tea and idle conversation, neatly avoiding all those topics they couldn't very well talk openly about, was enjoyable, yes. And she meant to make the most of it.
But perhaps something additional was required, given that she could see how the Doctor's friends, Amy and Rory, still looked a bit uncomfortable, out of place. Kristin took another sip of her tea before deciding that the best way to remedy that was to go back to one of the many things she'd learned from Nathan Bridger: if you need to take your mind off something, play a game. In his case, the game of choice had been poker. Now, since she'd sworn never to play another game of chess, hers was the same. "Do you have time to play a few rounds of poker before you leave?" she asked. It wouldn't break up their visiting—she doubted anyone here was quite that serious about the game—and it would help to draw everyone together before they had to part ways.
For a second or two, she was the recipient of surprised faces. Then the Doctor burst out laughing, and smiles and chuckles came from everyone else, including her. "We'd love to," he said, earning surprised looks from Amy and Rory. Perhaps in response to their shock, he added, quietly, "I think we could all use a bit of a break." A bit louder, he added, "After all, a bit of fun's an excellent remedy for whatever ails you, isn't it?"
Kristin smiled. "Precisely." It wasn't a cure, but it was a suitable distraction, and it would make everyone more comfortable.
And since they didn't know what the future would hold, sometimes making people more comfortable, helping them adjust to a new life, was the best they could do.
A/N: And that's it, I'm afraid. I do hope everyone found it enjoyable. Many thanks to darkin520, Questfan, and Earle Foster for reviewing.