[A/N – When last we saw our heroes, or two of them at least, they were before a firing squad on a Justice Department space station was no idea how to get away. (And if that wasn't the last time you saw our heroes, you missed the preview on the end of Minute. Hop back in time a couple of days and check it out.) A kind and benevolent author would jump right in here and tell you whether or not they survive, and how. I am not a kind and benevolent author.]
3 DAYS EARLIER
Earth, 1972. The dead days of the year between Christmas and another January. The shops are closed, or they're empty, and New York is under snow that slides away from the skyscrapers and piles shoulder-high wherever it can fit. The Tardis, apparently reluctant to go anywhere near it, tries parking herself on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, but I'm not having it. Lifts are electric, and the Silence might show up. That is far, far too many stairs to even contemplate. Anyway, it's not my most favouritest building you lot ever threw up.
…Matter of fact you lot didn't even now that I think about it. No. We're not staying here, much as Pond might love the view.
She repositions herself on the flat roof of a closed comic book shop just a little farther out of the centre with only two flights of fire escape between us and the alley below. Much better.
River is the first out the door and the first back in.
"This is the fourth time you've managed to miss giving me Christmas in New York."
"Oh, River, count your blessings!" Pond cuts in. She's head and shoulders in the coat cupboard looking for something warm enough for outside. That cupboard could swallow her, you know. It's happened before. Not that I'm willing it to swallow her before she can go on and say what I know she's going to say. "He promised me Christmas in New York too. Not only did he come for me in June, River, but-"
"Really, Pond, must we dredge up this old show again?"
"-It was the seventeenth New York, River, and trust me, the sequels are no better than the original, and there was a plague of murderous alien Santas laying waste to everything. So you just look up and see your lucky stars all aligned, River, love, because it could be worse!"
Every time. Every Christmas, every New York, every minor miscalculation of potential fun, and she just has to bring up the massacring Clauses… One saving grace; she actually does fall into the coat cupboard before she can get out of it.
I have to cut in.
If I don't cut in she's going to go on to my second attempt to give her a New York Christmas. That one wasn't my fault, she was the one that got us thrown in the drunk tank full of fairies, and we're not going over that again. We're not reliving that vile, hellish night.
"Pond! Rory! This is 1972 and we have two extremely important tasks to complete. Now your daughter and I are going to handle one end of things but I need you for the other. I can rely on you, can't I?"
I've already explained to them, you see, the sheer scale of what we face here.
Well… I say explained. I may have skirted a few salient issues. Like the one about why the Silents got so irritated with human beings in the first place. And they didn't ask either. Is that what happened last time? I spoke and there were big holes and glaring inconsistencies and nobody noticed? They listen, yes, and they hear, and they understand and they obey but do they think?
I was always under the impression that they would tell me if I was wrong.
They're just standing there nodding. Awaiting orders. They the good soldiers and I the…
From the inside pocket of my jacket, I produce a slip of paper. "I need you to requisition the items on this list. Beg, steal or borrow, I don't care how you get it, but I need it all here this evening. Can I leave that with you?"
She says, "Absolutely, Doctor."
He says, "You can count on us."
She put that list away in her coat pocket and never even looked at it. I've worried about them before, yes, but not like this. I've worried about their lives and the lives of the people they care about, about what will happen to them when I am no longer a part of all that. I have worried about them pretty much constantly since Amelia was a little girl in a big house alone. But I've never really thought about the effect that I myself might have been having on them. I've never really noticed before on just how many occasions Pond has, to coin a phrase, slipped the note away without reading.
They leave and I watch them go.
Probably, I watch for quite a while after they go, because it's a shock when River lays a hand softly on my shoulder. "What's the matter?" she says. I break out a smile and spin to her, take her by the hand and twirl her once under my arm.
"Nothing whatever, darling. Now let's go dancing."
"But I thought we had a terribly important task to accomplish?"
"We do. Luckily we can also go dancing. You might even get to hit somebody, River."
"Oh, sweetie," she sighs. Twirls back against me and mock-swoons backward over my arm. "I always knew you loved me really."
Many long centuries before the glory days of the Maldovarium, and many years before the embarrassing experiment-slash-debacle that was the Blue Man Group, there was The Vinyl Lounge. Thirty square feet of downtown basement space, 310 cubic litres of smoke from all corners of the galaxy, undivided except by curtains of amber beads. Existing, day and night, in a permanent state of flux, from the Indian-inspired music on the stereos to the in-and-out stream of alien life forms arriving to kick back, knock off their perception filters for a bit and just unwind. It usually takes a bit longer than they're expecting, due to the fact that almost anything you order is liable to be at least half water.
Except for Taremanians. A Taremanian will be three sheets to the wind after that much H2O.
"Should've told me we were coming here," River says. "I would've worn my kaftan."
"Not a chance. I want you wafting incense the rest of the trip." Reaching out, I ruffle her hair at the back, "Go on, get it good and stuck in there."
"Stop it," and she bats me off, but she's biting down hard on a smile. While she's on a high, at the bottom of the stairs I step behind her, take both her hands and wind her arms over her body, beginning to dance her across the floor. "What is the matter with you?"
"Why? Am I wrong? Is this wrong?"
"But is it wrong, River?"
She thinks about that. With her eyes closed and her head tipped back against my shoulder, with the pressure of my leg guiding her every new step. Warmth and closeness and music from pipes that you can tell by the sound have a dozen inexplicable bulges in their bodies. Charmed like a snake she eventually sighs, "Probably not."
"You'd tell me, wouldn't you, River, if I was in the wrong? Question me, River, always question me. Always tell me, River, when I'm wrong, won't you?"
"Surely not always? You'd get bored hearing it. No, I couldn't possibly, my love. It'd affect your perpetual self-confidence."
She's joking. She thinks I'm joking, so she's replying in kind. That's alright. Just so long as she doesn't forget the joke. That way she'll realize. Understand. Come the time, it'll all make sense to her.
We groove up to the bar at her own pace, and I release one of River's hands only to fill it with peanuts from the little bowl and knock them back. Then bang on the bar, "Service!"
The bartender comes over. He's Cindici in appearance, which means we have roughly the same body mass, except that he's half my height and twice my width. Wherever he goes he drags a little step ladder with him so he can properly serve.
"What can I get you?"
"We'd like to speak to Dorium, please."
"We are," River tells him. Leans back so that I lean back, so he can lean over the bar (albeit he has to give himself a little boost, feet leaving the top step), and see the gun on her hip. It's not even really a threat, it's just a part of the introduction. The bartender sighs and starts to climb down his ladder. "I'll talk to him."
"Many thanks," I say. As soon as he's below us, out of sight, River and I roll our eyes at each other and we follow.
He pushes through a double layer of bead curtain, which in the 1970s on Earth was the same as a door marked Private. Starts up that old conversation, Boss, there's some people here to see you, so on, so forth.
There's a low and much-less-upper-class-than-I've-been-led-to-expect drawl from within.
"Just tell 'em to chill out, man. I don't want to see anybody just now."
But they're not actually beyond a door, they're beyond a bead curtain, and it doesn't really make a difference that it's a double. I poke my head through. "Alright, Doriuoh my word…"
Before he was rich and decadent, Dorium Maldovar was a hippy. I knew this, but I knew it in a dim and distant way which, until this moment, was never real to me. Not until I saw him sprawled on a purple velour loveseat that rather clashes with his skin, thin as a rake and with a full head of glossy, black, shoulder-length hair, was it ever, ever real to me. Now I am trying not to laugh.
"How's things?" I manage, albeit at several octaves higher than normal and without breathing. This is what makes River finally choose to join me.
River does not have my restraint.
All Dorium does is sigh and loll about as though he'd like to get up, but he just can't get into it. "Who the hell are you?"
"I'm the Doctor. In the future, you and I will be friends with an uneasy trust based on mutual understanding and favours owed. The hyena here is River. She'll be beating you senseless today while I ask questions. River?"
He sits up when she parks next to him on the couch. This is a mistake because it allows her to get an arm crooked around his neck.
"I'm not supposed to tell you this," she hisses in his ear, "But to my knowledge you will never look this good again."
The bartender, by the way, has left. Without a word, without panicking, without stopping to check if we're going to kill him.
Oh, I tell a lie; he puts his head back through the beads and asks just precisely that question.
"Not if he's good," River purrs, braiding the front part of Dorium's hair. I've never seen him looking more terrified, but she's just bored.
The bartender, satisfied he'll still have a job at dinnertime, withdraws and leaves us to it.
I seat myself in an egg chair suspended between ceiling and floor on a chain. It turns gently with my weight. I need one of these. I need one of these on the Tardis. This thought momentarily distracts me, and River is still distracted by the fact that Dorium has hair. It is, ultimately, our hostage who clears his throat.
"Yes, right, sorry. Questions, battering." River's fist balls up above his head and comes down square on top of it. "No, love, not yet"
"Just letting him know what waits, sweetie."
"Of course, quite right. My mistake."
"What would you do without me?"
"Spend a lot less and be a lot nicer about things."
She can't reach me, so she punches Dorium again. Then gets up from behind him and repositions herself so she can get a better swing on it next time. And when he tries to stand she plants her boot on the edge of the couch not millimetres from… well, it would be indelicate to say precisely, but you see what I'm getting at here.
"Dorium," I finally begin. "You know everything that's going on around here. You always have and you always will do, it's your own special talent. If we haven't met before now, then this is just the first of many times I will come to exploit this talent of yours. You have already been made aware of what will happen if you do not comply. Be comforted by the fact that our working relationship does not continue in the same pattern."
"Dude, I haven't got a clue what half of that just meant."
River swings in, grabs him by the luxuriant ebony locks and tugs him up to her, "Then listen better."
"The Silence. Heard of them yet?"
"Never," he says, or tries to. The end spirals off in a sharp, strangled cry as River tugs harder on his hair.
"No! Leave him; that's very possibly true."
"Oh. Sorry, my love."
"That's alright, pigeon," Dorium says. She slaps him because she wasn't addressing him to begin with.
"There's a race. Humans have been killing them off for years, great big massacres anywhere they appeared." Without ever actually letting go of him, River cuts her eyes at me. This is the first time she's hearing this part. That's why the Ponds have gone off with the shopping list. "They're getting ready to launch, leave this planet forever. A woman brought them the technology. Operation like that is bound to leave a mark. So tell me, Mr Maldovar, where do they intend to launch from?"
He's thinking about whether or not to answer. River would like very much to hit him again, but I shake my head. Give him a minute. It's cruel of me, I know, after I promised her. She needs a little vent every so often. An outlet. And it's my place as a good husband to provide for. It's not my fault she's a psychopath but…
Oh, wait… In light of what we now know, look at it again. Trace it back.
Yes, so I am definitely justified in finding safety valves for all of River's latent ire and violence. That is a responsibility which I cannot, in good conscience, shirk.
By the time I'm done feeling better about myself, Dorium has realized he's not getting away until he talks.
"Listen, dude, you're talking about a real scary bunch of people here."
"I don't have much of a choice but to deal with them, so don't worry about that."
"I'm not, I'm worried about me."
"I like that," River sighs, smiling. "Gives you a sense of constancy."
"You don't die today, Dorium," I tell him. He's not convinced. River unholsters her gun and pushes it against his forehead, until he's forced to lie back. Relax. Chill out. "You might die today, Dorium."
"Tunguska," he says, pretty quick now. "They're using the Tunguska wormhole."
Wonderful. What a nice compliant gentleman he is. I think I'll come back to him in his relative future and make use of his compliance again. River, however, does not seem quite so entirely satisfied. Matter of fact, she pushes a bit harder, until Dorium sinks down into the cushions, and then she cocks the gun.
"River? Darling? What are you doing now?"
"Tunguska!" she seethes, through gritted teeth. "Tunguska in Siberia, sweetie! It's never Tunguska in Barbados, or Maui, or anywhere I can wear a bikini, is it?"
She has a point. She's not going about it the right way, but she does have a point. We could discuss her point, like adults, were it not for the strange and distracting black dot on the edge of my vision. Makes it very hard to put forward a cogent argument. It's very slightly wavering too, which makes it all the more difficult to ignore. As well as which, I suspect River's no longer listening. She's looking at me, yes, but very focused, and slightly below my face. "There's a little laser dot somewhere on my chest, isn't there?"
"Yes, my love."
I spin my egg chair towards the wall as the shot rings out. I feel the impact in the outer shell. Hear River scream and start shooting. Dorium scrambling behind the loveseat.
Thinking to myself, "It was all going so well."