The blue box.
If Chhll'kti had been in his natural form, the hairs on the back of his thorax would have been standing on end, barbed tips upright to discourage predators. With the shimmer field molding his body into the soft little form of a human, he was sweating, and his heart was thumping more rapidly than normal.
The blue box. The Travelling Man.
He'd recognized it as soon as he'd seen it. He'd been assigned to the biweekly supply convoy to the small rail depot about forty miles from the base. As they'd been returning to the base, they'd come through the trees and there it had been, sitting innocently on the elevator platform. Such a small thing, it was. It didn't look dangerous at all, a small blue box sitting there in the snow. But as small and innocent as it looked, it carried the promise of ruin.
And then, just when the box had been secured and sweeps of the facility had been started, the alarms had gone off. He'd known, then, that the Travelling Man was in the lab. When he'd attached the nano-charge to the vortex stabilizer on the new time machine, he'd set it to send a signal to the security system if anyone attempted to remove it. But no human would notice it; the nano-charge was the size of a grain of rice, and had been carefully concealed within the vortex stabilizer itself.
Squad 111 was assigned to sweep levels four through six. When the alarms went off, Chhll'kti slunk his way into a supply closet, locked the door, triggered his shimmer field, and triggered his communicator.
"Lord Commander." He clicked. "I must speak with the Lord Commander immediately. This is agent Chhll'kti. Priority assignment, verification 447-321."
A pause, and then one of the communication drones replied. "This is an unscheduled communication. State reason."
"The blue box. It's here."
Another pause. The next clicking voice to sound over the communicator was that of the Honorable Lord Commander. "Agent Chhll'kti."
"Lord Commander. He's here. The Travelling Man." Chhll'kti tried to smooth down the hairs on the back of his thorax, and was only marginally successful. "With the blue box."
Another pause. "Is the machine compromised?"
"Unknown, Lord Commander."
"Find out. And find out how much he knows. Report all information to me immediately. We will advance the plan as necessary."
"Order accepted, Lord Commander."
"And Chhll'kti…if you manage to slay the Travelling Man…the greatest of honor shall be yours, until the universe ends. You would be remembered for all of time as the warrior who killed the Travelling Man, from one side of the universe to the other. The empress herself would give you one of her daughters as brood-mate."
"Understood, Lord Commander."
Alfred Zambuky, of Viper Squad 110, was confused.
This didn't happen to him very often, being confused. His job duties were fairly straightforward; obey orders, shoot people who shouldn't be there, intimidate the occasional civilians. Sure, his job occasionally included such tasks as "Drive the giant snake-shaped water craft in the attack on New York City" or "Dig up Napoleon's grave for DNA samples", but generally speaking things worked a certain way. When enemy soldiers showed up, you shot them, or attempted to. The Joe team, in particular, never surrendered without an extended, vicious fight.
He had never before, in all of his years of service with Cobra, been offered gummy candy by a man he was pointing a gun at.
"What?" He blinked.
"Jelly baby. They're sweets. Quite good." The strange suited man popped one in his own mouth. "I used to eat them all the time. Forgot I still had a bag. Fortunately the TARDIS' storage compartments are time-locked, so they haven't gone stale. Anyway, we're surrendering, so you can put the guns away and take us to your boss. Hello! I'm the Doctor, by the way." He stuck out his hand, smiling. After a moment, he sighed and lowered it. "Rude. Just rude."
"…What?" Al lowered his rifle slightly.
Al felt his testicles attempt to retreat up into his abdominal cavity. There was no mistaking that Alabama bellow, and he still had vivid memories of what the man attached to that bellow had done to six of his squad mates last month in the Amazon rain forest.
"MAH ASS WE'RE SURRENDERIN'! ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR GOD-DAMNED MIND?"
"They don't look like they're surrendering." Al raised his rifle again. "Shoot the loud one first. Do not let him get his hands on you; it took the janitorial crew six hours to get the walls clean last time."
The Doctor sighed. "Soldiers. Oi! You lot! Surrender usually means come out with hands up and all that. We're surrounded and outnumbered. Trying to fight your way out is only going to result in people getting hurt and dying needlessly. I know what I'm doing. Trust me."
"You have a plan?"
Al's testicles gave a whimper of remembered pain and took up residence behind his spleen. That voice belonged to the redhead who'd kicked him in the crotch three months back in Africa. He'd spent the next twenty minutes whimpering and throwing up, and the doctors told him that he'd probably never have children.
The Doctor shrugged. "Sort of. Look, just trust me. I do know what I'm doing. Please. Just trust me. I swear to you, I will get us out of this, but you have to trust me."
There was a long, tense, pregnant moment of profound silence. Then, very slowly, one of the Joes stood slowly up, his hands raised, and took a step forwards.
"BREAKER! THE FUCK YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?"
"I trust him." Breaker took a few careful steps forward, set his handgun on the floor, and nudged it forward a bit with one foot. "I don't know why, but I trust him. And he's right. If we have to fight our way out of this, our chances aren't good right now."
"That's a good chap!" The Doctor clapped Breaker on the shoulder. "Now, the rest of you. And then you lot take me to James McCullen. Someone's been tampering with his time machine, and it wasn't me."
"McCullen…" Al wrinkled his forehead. He'd never been the brightest bulb in the fixture, and he knew it. He was more the 'large, strong, and liked to be told what to do' type than 'clever'. "You mean Destro?"
The Doctor sighed again. "Yes. Destro, James McCullen, Mary Queen of Scots…whatever he's calling himself right now. Come on, you lot. Out of hiding, weapons down. We're surrendering, remember?"
There were a few moments of frantic whispering from behind the soldering station. Slowly and very reluctantly, the Joes emerged, looking almost as confused as Al felt.
"Ah'm gonna kill him." Beachhead was growling under his breath. "Ah'm gonna kill him."
"Splendid!" The Doctor grinned happily. "Now, take me to your leader! You know, I never get tired of saying that."
The Doctor was old.
No one really understood this. Not even his companions, his dear brave, loyal, brilliant companions. No one could understand it any longer, because he was the last. The only Time Lord left in all the universe. Even Jack…Jack might understand someday. Would understand someday, but right now, even after all he'd lived through, he was less than a quarter the Doctor's age.
Nine hundred years was a lie. Well, not precisely a lie…he was nine hundred years old, if you went by the Zorstraxian calendar. Of course, no one had used the Zorstraxian calendar in four hundred years, but still. Women got to lie about their age.
In fact, he'd been one thousand and seventy four as of his eighth body, and that had been two hundred years ago. Jack? Jack was two, two hundred and fifty, give or take a decade.
By Gallifreyan or Earth standards, his true age was close to thirteen hundred. He'd looked into the eyes of gods and demons. He'd faced monsters straight from the darkest pits of human fears. He was The Travelling Man. The Traveller from Beyond Time. Ka Faraq Gatri, Destroyer of Worlds. The Oncoming Storm. The Old One. He Whose Name Dare Not Be Mentioned. The Dark One. Predator of the Daleks. And the first of his many aliases, the one he'd given himself, the one that his friends and enemies alike knew him by…the Doctor.
The term wasn't entirely honorary. He'd accumulated so many advanced degrees over the centuries that the list of things he wasn't a legitimate doctor of was shorter than the list of things he did hold certifications in.
He was a graduate of the Prydonian chapter of the Academy of Gallifrey. Prydonian chapter members had been renowned on Gallifrey for their deviousness and cunning; "Never turn your back on a Prydonian," the saying had once been. The Prydonian chapter had turned out Lord Presidents. Scientists who'd cracked the secrets of the universe itself. The Prydonian chapter had taught women like the Rani and men like the Master, who could bring planets and civilizations low with nothing but their brains, a bit of charisma, and forty quid worth of electronics. And even these brilliant, dangerous children of the organization acknowledged freely that the Doctor was the most cunning, cleverest, most brilliant, and most devious member the chapter who had ever lived.
People looked at him and saw an affable, slightly mental, rather young (for the last few incarnations, anyway) man. They didn't see the vast amount of experience and knowledge that was stored inside his skull. They didn't see the way that he saw everything, how he could look at a situation and fit all the little seemingly unconnected details together into a single, brilliant whole. Some people thought outside the box. The Doctor thought circles around the box in twelve different dimensions and then turned the box inside out and thought through it.
He'd always had the wanderlust, never had been able to stay still for long. He'd traveled so very far, and had seen so very, very many things. And all of that experience and all that thirteen hundred years of study, all of that cunning and brilliance and deviousness made him the man he was. He was the man who could end a brilliant political career with six words. The man who could end a war that had echoed through all of time and space single-handedly, if at a terrible cost. He was the man who could make the choice to do that, and then push the button, knowing full well that he was irrevocably dooming his own people in the process. He was the man who could look a god of destruction in the eye and then trap it outside of time in an inescapable prison, dooming it to die of old age after five thousand of years of torment. The man who could stand before the devil himself, look the beast in the eye, and then smile and throw the creature into the heart of a black hole.
He sometimes accused himself of being thick, of not remembering something right away that he should have. But the problem wasn't that he was thick; it was that he was too clever. There was so much stored away in his head that it was difficult to keep track of it all sometimes. But then someone would say the right word, or he'd see a color or a shape or something, and it would jolt the vast repository of knowledge that was his memory in the right way to make things all fall into place.
That was part of why he liked to have companions with him, actually. They had a wonderful habit of saying the right thing at the right time.
And so now, as thirty armed soldiers marched him and his rather surly companions to meet the man named James McCullen, he was doing what he did best. He was thinking.
The soldiers with him thought him mad. But he wasn't. He understood human psychology better then Freud, who incidentally had been a really sore loser at chess. The Doctor knew that when someone was confused, particularly someone who was used to taking orders, they sought to make their problem someone else's problem. Prisoners aren't supposed to offer their captors candy, and they aren't supposed to look perfectly happy to be taken prisoner. Let the higher-ups deal with the problem, the confused henchman thought. I don't get paid enough for this.
People often wondered later why they'd gone along with the madman in the blue box. One of the Doctor's little secrets was simple Gallifreyan biology; his race was mildly telepathic. Not on a high level; he needed physical contact and concentration to actually read minds, but he did project a very low-level psychic field around himself. Creatures close enough for him to talk to them found themselves inexplicably inclined to listen to him. He was the The Man who Talked, but when he talked, people listened, if only enough for him to extract vital information from them. It was one of his greatest weapons.
And so, unseen behind his smile, his brain was working, six steps ahead of everyone else around him. He felt the timelines, mind racing ahead down avenues of possibility and probabilities, calculating the outcomes every action could lead to.
The soldiers herded them through a large sliding door into a control room of sorts; CCTV cameras lined one wall. There were control consoles neatly arranged in lines, and top-of-the line computers were everywhere. And standing by the security monitors, arms crossed and managing to look distinctly put out right through a steel mask, was a man who had to be James McCullen.
"Excellent work, men." The Scottish brogue confirmed the Doctor's suspicions. "You will be rewarded appropriately. Were these all you captured?"
Destro pressed his fingertips against one temple. "If they got into my lab without tripping any alarms, they have at least one ninja with them. Do you see a ninja here?"
"No, sir." The Vipers shifted nervously and glanced at the corners of the room, as if a ninja would appear right out of the shadows.
Destro reached for a microphone and keyed it. "As of now, assume an enemy ninja is at large. Search pattern delta. Electrify the ventilation ducts."
The microphone crackled. "Yes, sir."
"You might also want to have them look for the spy tampering with your time machine." The Doctor raised an eyebrow. "Unless you're the one who wired an electron microcharge into the temporal stabilizer, and I don't think a clever man like you would do that."
Destro rounded on him. "What? Who the bloody hell are you, anyway?"
"Hello." The Doctor extended a hand. "I'm the Doctor." He frowned at the other man. "Have we met before? You seem really familiar."
"I think I'd remember meeting you."
"Yeah, I'd think I'd remember meeting a bloke who goes about with…" The Doctor leaned forward, quick as a flash, and swiped his index finger over the nose of Destro's mask. Several firearms were leveled at him, but he ignored this. He licked his finger and rolled his tongue against the roof of his mouth. "…A beryllium steel mask. Did you ever do any newsreels? No? Hmm. Because your nose looks incredibly familiar."
"Doctor?" Destro folded his arms. "Of what?"
"Everything." The Doctor eyed the other man for a moment. "Oh, I promised myself I wouldn't do this, but I can't keep doing this any longer...you're James McCullen!" He scrabbled in a pocket until he extracted a small book. "You have to sign this! Don't read it, because I don't think you've written it yet, but you will. On the Creation and Stabilization of Timespace Vortexes. THE definitive proof of time travel as a concrete fact in human history! You single-handedly advance the human understanding of time more than any other scientist before or since! Genius! Absolute genius! Possibly the greatest mind of your time, right up there with Einstein and Newton and Curie in a pantheon of the great human scientists! Did you know that three thousand years from now Time Agents will still be required to read your work? Brilliant! You're absolutely brilliant! Mental too, but still. Brilliant! Did you ever do any magazines? No? Right around the ears, too. The ears are ringing bells."
Destro blinked for several seconds. "You know what a temporal stabilizer is?"
"Of course I do. Can't time travel without one, or the vortex would collapse in on itself…"
"…and form a singularity that would throw you and your time machine into oblivion." Destro finished.
"Exactly!" The Doctor bounced excitedly on the balls of his feet. "Which is why the microcharge wired to the temporal stabilizer in your new machine is a bit troubling. Detonate that at the precise millisecond when you're opening a vortex and you'd form a singularity big enough to crack this planet open like an egg. Did I run into you at a conference somewhere? I like to go to scientific conferences around this time. They're a riot. You lot couldn't even resolve quantum mechanics and general relativity yet."
"You're from the future, then?" Destro seemed intrigued. "Why are you working with them?" This last word dripped disdain, and he gestured at the captured Joes as he said it. "The blue box I've got quarantined in research two…your ship? This microcharge…where is it?"
"Oh, but you're brilliant!" The Doctor crowed gleefully. "Of course I'm from the future. You wouldn't notice it very easily yourself. Check between the input cables that link it to the gravity drive. Temporal storm dropped me out of the time vortex slap bang in their base." He raised his eyebrows. "But that's not your biggest problem right now, is it? Because an electron microcharge isn't something this planet will have for another thousand years. So you've got someone who works here who should not be here. Someone who's using you. And are you sure we've never met, because you look really familiar."
"I think it would be difficult to forget you, Doctor."
"Well, yeah. I am sort of amazing on occasion." The Doctor grinned. "So. How about letting me and my friends go, then?"
"Why should I?" Destro's voice was cold. "I was having a lovely evening until you disturbed me. And now that you've given me the information I need to fix the meddling done to my ship, what use are you to me?"
The Doctor smiled, a sly, thin little smile. "Because you still have someone here who shouldn't be. And I'm the only one who can help you find him. And you already know that, don't you? And besides, as you so astutely pointed out, there is still a ninja loose on this base."
He shoved his hands into his pockets. "The thing about ninja…they're very unlike me. See, I don't like violence. Always avoid it if I can. But a ninja? A ninja loves violence. A bit too much, really. Stab you in the back soon as look at you. And you've got two of them on the loose, working together. If you start killing us, what do you suppose is going to happen to you and your men? Because they won't stop. You know that. Not until all of you are dead. Particularly if you hurt her." He nodded towards Scarlett. "Because I think that would make the one very, very angry. So you're going to let us go now, and we'll help you ferret out your spy and find out why he's trying to destroy the planet, and then we'll stop him, and then we'll go back and stop the men you sent to kill these people as children. I'm growing rather fond of them, rather not have them drop dead."
"You sound very sure of yourself." Destro raised an eyebrow under his mask.
"James McCullen. Destro." The Doctor stared the other man dead in the eyes. "As brilliant as you are, and that is very, know this; I am cleverer. I will find ways to stop you, if you try to stop me, and it will be in ways that you could never have seen."
"I could kill you right here and now."
"You could." The Doctor nodded. "But then we'd be back to the 'angry ninja' thing, and you're not going to kill me anyway."
"And how do you know that?"
"Because I'm what you've always wanted." The Doctor smiled again. "Someone who appreciates, really appreciates, just how clever you are. On this whole planet, James McCullen, I'm the only one. And if you hurt them, you lose the chance to ever talk to me again."
There was a good thirty seconds of silence. The Joes, slightly shellshocked, were staring, openmouthed.
"Did he just smooth talk our way out of a firefight, probable death, and horrible little dank cells?" Covergirl finally muttered.
"I think so." Flint murmured back.
"Ah'll give him credit for balls." Beach scowled. "Still gonna kill him."
The Doctor just smiled.