Fandom(s): Doctor Who
Characters: Seventh Doctor, Ace McShane, Soren
Word Count: 4787
Summary: Trying to recover an ailing population's stolen medical supplies, the Doctor and Ace come up empty when the smuggler's trail goes cold.
Author's Notes: Written for the 53rd Anniversary Fanwork-a-thon at who_at_50.
Just like my entry last year, this story to ties the classic era with the modern era just a bit. Familiarity with "Time Reaver" helps but is not at all necessary.
An airy blast of diesel fumes, metallic tang, and stale coffee accompanied the whirr of the TARDIS doors as they opened. A hint of a satisfied smile crept into the Doctor’s eyes at the familiar atmosphere. He always enjoyed visiting Calibris, the transportation hub of the galaxy, with ships of all types coming and going in a whirling dance of baggage carousels and timetables and the rush of travellers from all worlds, each dashing off to their destinies, never stopping on this world of in-between. It was the perfect place to simply watch. Today, however, he was here for a purpose, and, hooking his umbrella on his arm, he marched through the doors and let them close behind him, his shoes clunking on the bare steel floor of the fabricated planet.
Pushing his way through the steady stream of sentients dashing toward their next connections, the Doctor ducked into an observation lounge set into the wall of the enormous docking bay that was Terminal 216, serving the Delta-Nu quadrant of the planet. Stepping up to the window, he pulled a pair of binoculars from his pocket and scanned every acre of the vast, moon-sized cavern. He counted two hundred and twenty-three ships of all sizes bound to the moorings that carpeted the inner surface of the bay and another thirty-five ships floating in the center, waiting for a dock to open so they could off-load their passengers and cargo and pick up more, but none of them were the one he expected.
“It must be here,” he growled to himself through grinding teeth. “Only Delta Nu has the proper microgel conduits to service a Corrasian cargo boat.” He stuffed the binoculars back in his pocket and spun on his heel then stopped short, doffing his hat to the four-foot slug-like being he’d almost tripped over in his haste. “I’m very sorry, I didn’t see you there.” Closing his eyes, he executed a complex series of head bobs and shoulder wriggles. “Please convey my respects to your family,” he intoned as he ended a bow. The slug wiggled its antennae in acknowledgement, murmuring a satisfied “Broop”, and the Doctor, twirling and flipping his hat onto his head, skirted around it and strode off toward a porter in a dark red jumpsuit uniform.
Waving to catch her attention, the Doctor inquired, “Excuse me, can you please tell me where the Meganterid Flame is docked? Or will be docked?”
The wide six-legged creature, which resembled a housefly with a tortoiseshell carapace, prodded a device strapped to its leg then chittered. A scratchy translation issued from the collar around its prothoracic joint.
The Doctor frowned. “That can’t be right. It must be here, or on its way. Look beyond three decicycles. Try out to eight,” he demanded, wagging a finger at the device. The attendant punched the buttons peremptorily and clicked its mandibles together in negation. The Doctor stroked his chin as he thought. “Then… was it ever here?”
Grumbling deep in its thorax, it consulted its device once more and whistled.
“Departed a decicycle ago? How in the Seven Systems -” the Doctor thundered, then caught sight of the insect’s sardonic stare. “Ah, yes. Where did it dock, may I ask?” Upon receiving the direction of level BL, gate 7, he pulled from his pocket five sugar packets he had acquired at the Pump Room in Bath and tucked them into the pouch slung over the attendant’s back. “Thank you, my dear. You’ve been helpful and pleasant.” Tipping his hat, he sauntered off, muttering something about the declining quality of union labour.
On previous visits to Calibris, the Doctor had found that this body’s ability to melt into the background, to become lost in a sea of faces, had given him a different way of observing the lives around him and of gathering information than he’d been used to, but this was no use here, and in fact, was a disadvantage in his drive against the press of bodies going in the opposite direction. In times past, the Doctor had been able to rely on his imposing stature alone to clear a path for himself through any crowd, but no longer. However, there was more than one way to excoriate a feline and personal attitude could be as effective as physical size. It was a brave soul who didn’t make way for the Doctor as he strode up the corridor to level BL, his chest out and his umbrella swinging, metallic clicks ringing out as its tip glanced off the floor.
The moment he stepped into the BL traveller’s respite, the person he’d hoped to find there popped up from a seat tucked into corner off to his left. Clad in a grey skirt and a bulky black jacket covered in patches of various colourful logos and clutching her rucksack to her chest, Ace had been squeezed between a very large Olmarian tourist whose bulky upper appendages spilled over the armrests into the seats beside him and a family of Sholpites whose larvae (a quick glance totted up over thirty children; A tiny family, just starting out, thought the Doctor) were piled over the next five seats. It might have been an uncomfortable spot for her, but it was the only one that let her observe the entire lounge and keep a clear view of the door.
“Professor!” she called, hopping carefully over the foot-long wriggling worms to get to him. “Where’ve you been? I’ve been waiting for two hours!”
“Ah, yes,” the Doctor sighed. “You’d think that if the cure to your planet-wide epidemic had been stolen, you’d want the person chasing the smugglers down to take off as soon as possible, but no. They made me go through customs. Me! But that’s Elleborites for you. Every form filled out in triplicate,” he griped. Spinning on his heel, the Doctor strode back out of the lounge, confident that Ace would follow without question. “Now, tell me exactly what happened.”
“I did what you said, Professor. I found the…” Struggling with the unfamiliar phrase, she mouthed it through silently before attempting to say it out loud. “The hyperflamaic intradimectinal control cluster.” She grinned proudly as he nodded at her pronunciation. “You were right on; it did look like a tree made of orange fuzzy tennis balls. I set the nitro-9 at the base, and boom!” She hopped with excitement, her eyes shining and her ponytail flopping. “The inflows shattered and the balls shriveled and turned black. And that new timer I built, that was brill! Went off at the right second.”
The Doctor frowned but let her enjoy the fruits of her hobby. “Yes, as I expected,” he commented as she calmed down. “Then what went wrong?”
“We docked here, but Donus got in and out so fast, I almost didn’t make it off the ship.”
The Doctor stopped and turned, letting the crowd flow around them. “Did you see or hear anything that might indicate how he managed to get that cluster fixed?”
“Yeah, when he passed by the closet I was hiding in.” She nodded with an eager grin. “You know how he mutters to himself, like he did when he passed us by in the spaceport on Elleborun? He said something like, ‘I’d better see Thorn. He’ll sort it.’”
“Yes,” the Doctor drawled as he thought, resting his chin on the cherry-red handle of the umbrella he clutched to his chest. “A bit of a miscalculation on my part. I hadn’t thought he’d be able to find anyone to replace that cluster at all, much less in less than three hours. Apparently there’s a very skilled mechanic set up shop here in Delta Nu.” His eyes slid toward his companion. “Thorn, did you say? We should get acquainted. Let’s pay him a visit, shall we, Ace?”
“Whatever you say, Professor.”
Locating a mechanic on Calibris was simple enough. Anywhere there are thousands of vehicles passing through on any given day - or transit cycle, in the case of this artificial planet-cum-bus-station - there are hundreds of said vehicles breaking down or in need of maintenance. No, finding a mechanic was not a problem; finding the right mechanic, however, could be next to impossible.
Since the planet was a lawless warren of steel tunnels and hidden chambers where anyone who could claim and defend a space could live and flourish, there were no official directories or business listings to consult. After inquiring with three different porters, the Doctor concluded that Ace must have heard the smuggler wrong, for none had heard of a mechanic named Thorn in Delta Nu or any of the adjacent dock quadrants.
“It seems to me, then, Ace, that we must change our tack and follow the one trail that our quarry must leave,” he commented as his companion dropped her rucksack by her feet and leant against the half-wall separating the seating area of Gate W-7 from the main walkway.
Jamming her hands in her jacket pockets, Ace settled herself with a shrug before asking, “What’s that, Professor?”
“Reputation.” He wagged a finger at her. “Any man who can survive on Calibris long enough to attract repeat customers must be known. Now, what is our good mechanic known for?”
“Fixing hyperflamaic interdimectinal control clusters?” she offered.
“Not just fixing them,” he corrected, tapping Ace on the shoulder with the handle of his umbrella. “Your explosives destroyed the one on Donus’ ship, so he must have replaced it,” he explained with expressively rolling “r”s. “It is quite singular that someone here in Delta Nu keeps such large, specialised stock on-hand.”
“Couldn’t Donus have gotten it from an interstellar garage or something? Makes more sense.” Ace looked around to see if any of the signs posted up and down the corridor advertised such a place.
The Doctor shook his head at the thought. “A good try, but not likely. Calibrians don’t like anything that threatens to impose structure on their planet. Yes, they’ve their cadres of thieves and pirates, with their masters and captains, but it’s all loose and fluid. Try to start a company here and you’ll find it stolen, piece by piece, even the very walls.” He rapped a knuckle on the steel beside her.
“But there’s got to be some,” she insisted. “Traffic controllers, dock workers, and those porters you talked to. They’ve got to work for someone.”
“Ah, the controllers, yes.” With a thoughtful grimace, the Doctor bobbed his head up and down in slow strokes. “Calibris would be a gnarled mess of bumper-to-bumper spaceships if not for them. They’ve got their hierarchy, yes, their covens and their politics. But the rest? They’ve loose bits of organisation to protect themselves, but it’s mostly every sentient for itself.” He jerked his head toward the passing crowd. “Go on, Ace. Throw on a red jumpsuit and offer to carry bags for tips. You’ll make a decent wage and no one will bat an eye.”
“So everyone on this planet’s making their own way, eh, Professor?” She seemed rather enchanted by the thought of such freedom and industry, and her eyes wandered to a red-clad porter pulling a sled of bags next to a tall humanoid, keeping cheerful conversation with her temporary employer as they walked.
“Much like the travellers they serve,” the Doctor replied.
Ace wrenched her attention back. “But even if no one’s running things, someone’s got to know.”
“Right you are, Ace. You can’t survive in a place like this without knowing what everyone else is doing. What we must do, then, is find out what everyone here already knows.”
The weathered steel door was unremarkable, partially hidden in the shadow of a structural beam that stretched from the floor to the dirty metallic rafters not far overhead. Few travellers even noticed its existence, their eyes drawn away by the flashier displays of the nearby shops featuring overpriced sundries, trinkets, and mementos. The Doctor sauntered up to the door and, pulling it open, marched through, letting his companion in the bulky black jacket catch it with a quick hand and hold it for herself as she followed him in.
The chamber into which the door opened was large enough to be a rather impressive storefront for a Calibrian merchant, but it was cluttered to the point of feeling like a forgotten junkyard. Hugging herself to flatten her puffy jacket and avoid knocking anything over, Ace stared at the objects packed on the tall shelves and hanging from hooks set into the ceiling, her eyes wide with awed fascination. She recognised bits here and there, dirty steel fabrications that were obviously parts of internal combustion engines or something similar, but the vast majority were alien to her, a chaotic collection of components that appeared to be composed of anything she could think of: tubes, crystals, lettuce, wires, bones, and more. There was even a small tank crawling with live worms.
The Doctor inhaled through his nose, deep into his chest. “Ah, smell that, Ace? There’s nothing quite like the aroma of a garage, especially one as diverse as this. Hydrocarbon and silicate oils, polymetallic fertilisers, cesichlors, fine-grain polishes. Hmm.” He frowned. “I detect a trace of high messteride fuels. Very odd.”
“Why?” she asked as she spun eagerly to face him, her voice quivering with excitement. “Are they explosive?”
“Oh, certainly not. Chemiluminescent, in fact.” Ace’s enthusiasm did not wane at this, and in fact, she seemed even more enthralled by the thought. “They provide radiant energy, brighter than you can imagine, so you pair them with a photovoltaic cell. One of the ultimates in clean energy. But they dissolve your bones into a calcium slurry, so most people don’t keep them around.”
“In a high enough concentration, they do,” interjected a new voice. The spidery man who popped out from behind a rack of bins filled with squishy-looking slimy balls of various colours crossed his arms and scanned his visitors with quick black eyes. “At the level I keep ‘em at, they’re harmless but they’ll chase off the dieropta.”
“What’s that then?” Ace asked, returning his once-over. With his unkempt straight brown hair and two days of stubble on his angular chin, he seemed human, though Ace knew better than to assume that.
“Metal-eaters. Scourge of the planet. Calibris is lousy with ‘em. Turns the steel to cheese. Won’t find none in here, though.” He reached over to caress a large steel cam with tenderness most people would reserve for their children. “All my merchandise is top-grade, perfect condition. They’ll outlast your ship.”
“Oh, I doubt that.” The Doctor walked over to a shelf and picked up one of three small glass rods from a vase almost completely hidden behind a stack of boxes. Holding it up to a nearby lamp, he inspected it from every angle before his eyes twitched to spear the man with a piercing gaze. “High quality. Where did you get them?”
He straightened with pride, his shoulders jerking back as he waggled his eyebrows. “Made them myself. I’ve only the three; they’re more complicated than they look.”
If the Doctor was surprised or impressed, he didn’t show it. He made a show of placing the rod back in its container, then tapped the shelf with the handle of his umbrella. “You service TARDISes then?”
Ace, who had been peering at a set of canisters that looked just like her own nitro-9, whirled to stare at the man, but he answered before she could speak.
“To tell the truth,” he began as he stepped among the packed shelves, picking at this or that, “I’ve never even seen one. Not much call for a TARDIS mechanic off Gallifrey. But I’ve studied every book on them that I could get my hands on. Both of them,” he winked.
Ace’s mouth dropped open. “You’re making parts for a ship you’ve never seen?”
“And probably never will.” Dropping the bauble in his hand back into its bin, he flashed an eager smile at the girl. “But that’s the fun of it, eh? Building stuff, learning. Each ship I work on, each bit, I learn more and more. And it’s like a part of me. I’m not much of a flyer, but I’m sending bits of me out into the universe.”
“Impressive work,” the Doctor conceded.
“What are those things, Professor?” asked Ace, pointing at the container of glass rods.
“Fluid links, Ace. A deceptively simple-looking but integral part of a TARDIS.”
“If you know one by sight, then I reckon you’re a Time Lord.” The man leant against a shelf, trying to seem nonchalant but the tension around his eyes betrayed wariness of his guest.
“You’ve found me out. I am the Doctor.” He doffed his hat as he introduced himself. “And this is my friend Ace. You must be Soren.”
“I must be, I’m sure,” Soren drawled in a pretentious accent. “You’ve the advantage on me, Doc.”
“Doctor,” he corrected, bristling a bit at the familiarity. “Hardly an advantage. Just a name, and we misheard it the first time. But you’re a hard man to find, especially one who relies on customers to make a living. Why are you hidden away in a nook that no one ever notices?”
“Prime spot, this is.” With an airy flip of his head, he thumbed over his shoulder. “Back rooms open onto the maintenance decks of level BL, so it’s easy access to my customers’ ships. Front room with lots of space. And,” he winked at Ace, “more than one escape hatch, but don’t tell anyone that.”
“But how do you actually get customers?” she retorted. Something in his manner was starting to set her nerves on edge. “There’s not even a sign on the door. Adverts, then?”
“Adverts don’t matter, not to me. My services are specialised.” He wagged a finger at her. “You need me? You’ll find me. And besides, I’m a busy man. Can’t get elbows-deep in a hyperdrive if I’ve got riff-raff from across the known galaxies crawling over my shop. Gotta keep the window shoppers out. But,” and though his attitude remained flippant, something in his tone turned to steel, “you’re not here for my services, so why don’t you tell me what you want.”
“How would you know what we’re here for?” asked Ace, stepping forward with her hands balled into fists.
“You ain’t a Time Lady, that’s for sure.” He smiled indulgently at her. “A Time Lord never needs anything I can offer. They’ve got lock and key on their tech. He doesn’t need a tyre changed or tune-up, do you, Doc?”
“No, I’m afraid I don’t.” The Doctor settled into business, both hands clutching his umbrella in front of him. “I’m looking for a man, and I believe he passed through here very recently. A Corrasian going by the name of Donus. You wouldn’t happen to have encountered him, would you?”
“See, now, that’s what I thought.” Soren shook his head. “Sorry, but who I work for, what I work on: that’s confidential.”
“But he was one of your clients. Good, good,” the Doctor mused, nodding.
“Never said that.”
“But it’s implied. I asked after a man who passed through.” With a sly smile, the Doctor gestured at Soren with his umbrella. “You’re the one who mentioned your clients.”
Soren’s jaw tightened for an instant. “That’s fair. But you’ll get nothing out of me.”
“I’m not interested in what work you did for him.” The Doctor’s tone was gentle and reasonable. “I’m simply wondering if you knew where he headed off to. A planet name, a solar system, even a galactic heading would be most helpful.”
The man’s reply was a bit too quick. “Nope, don’t know.”
“Or won’t tell.”
“But you’ve got to!” Ace broke in. “Donus stole a shipload of medicine from Elleborus. If we don’t get it back, millions of people are going to die.”
“Ace…” the Doctor soothed, trying to get her to back down.
“Maybe they might, but that’s not my problem.” Soren turned to the Doctor. “A bit wet behind the ears, ain’t she, for a bird travelling with one of you lot?”
“Not at all. Ace is simply a bit… straightforward.” His eyes flicked toward her. “She has her uses.”
Ace ignored the rather insulting exchange. “How can you not care that people are going to die because of you?”
Soren was not fazed by her implication. “I do what I do. I’m a mechanic. I build parts and service ships. That’s my life and I like it. I don’t go butting my nose into other people’s business. It’s not the ship’s fault what the owner decides to do with it, and neither is it mine.”
“But you can do so much good with just one little piece of information that you don’t even care about,” she cried, her ponytail bobbing with her indignation.
Shaking his head, Soren waved a hand at her to negate her accusation. “Oh, I care about the information. I just don’t care what that information is. You see, I make my living here by taking care of my clients. What do you think would happen if I were to betray their interests?” He leant in close to Ace. “This is Calibris, girl. I don’t just lose customers. If I don’t follow the rules, the steel itself chews me up and swallows.”
“Honour among thieves?” Ace snarled.
“You’ll find less thievery here than you think. A waystation can’t thrive if travellers are afraid to come here. We don’t need police because we police ourselves.” He turned to the Doctor. “Are we done here? I’ve got a batch of gear clutches for a Lorparamus cruiser cooking in the back, and if I let it simmer too long without basting off the oil, second will go right into reverse.”
“Oh, yes. We won’t keep you.” With a friendly smile, the Doctor doffed his hat. “It’s been a pleasure. Come along, Ace.” Without a backward glance, he swept out of the establishment, his companion staring between him and the mechanic before scrambling to follow him out.
“Professor!” Ace called as soon as the door had closed, and she ran to catch up with him. “We’ve got to go back.”
“Back to the TARDIS, Ace,” he called over his shoulder.
“But you can’t just give up like that,” she insisted. “We need to know where Donus went! We have to go back in there and get him to tell us.”
The Doctor halted and turned, waiting for her to catch up. “Ace. Soren is not going to give us that information for free. He has his own livelihood to look after and providing a service without payment doesn’t fill his table or stock his shelves. That’s not even considering what might happen if he’s suspected of being dishonourable.”
Ace’s face fell. “Then it’s hopeless.”
“Not at all. I said that he won’t give it to us for free. But what if we can pay for it?” He gazed at her with a sly glint in his eye as he tapped her on the forehead with a finger. “What if we can give him something that he wants desperately, that is worth more to him than the trouble that divulging the information might bring him?”
An eager grin spread across Ace’s face. “You have something you can pay him with, don’t you?” she breathed.
“Perhaps. I need to get back to the TARDIS to determine that.” The Doctor stepped to restart his trek back to his ship, then turned back to his companion. “Everyone has his price, Ace. It’s just a question of whether or not you can pay it.”
Pulling the grey steel door open, the Doctor stepped back and held it for his companion, who wheeled a dolly laden with crates into the cluttered storefront. Finding no open corner to set it in, she left it to block one of the aisles as the Doctor called, “Hello? Anybody home?”
A metallic clinking emanated from behind a tall shelving unit on the opposite side of the room from the door and presently, Soren emerged from behind it, wiping his hands on a greasy towel tucked into his belt. “Hoy, Doc!” he called with a friendly grin. “Long time no see. Thought you’d scarpered on me.”
The Doctor doffed his hat, bobbing a shallow bow to the mechanic. “I keep my promises” He turned to indicate Ace and her stack of crates. “We brought you these. A few dozen telleronite metagravitic couplings, a gift of thanks from the people of Elleborun for your part in retrieving their medical supplies.
Ace opened one of the crates to allow Soren to inspect its contents, an array of what looked to her like stacks of translucent plastic boxes glued together to make columns a little over a foot in length, packed in bubble wrap. The man nodded in approval, his lips pursed. “Top quality. Even treated with ilpumene. I can use this.” Sliding the object back into the crate, Soren eyed the Doctor. “Nice bonus…” he drawled.
“But you want your payment, of course.” The Doctor tugged at his lapels.
“Business is business,” Soren replied with neutral inflection.
“Come along, then. I’m just down the corridor.” The Doctor pulled the door open and waved the other two through, letting it slam behind him as he followed.
“A Type 40?” squeaked Soren as they neared the tall blue box.
Impressed, the Doctor tipped his hat to the mechanic. “You’ve a good eye. Not many non-Gallifreyans could spot that, you know.”
Goggling at the ship, Soren barely heard him. He walked up and ran a reverent hand down a panel, then cleared his throat and tried to re-establish his customary demeanour. “A bit out of date, centuries at least. Can’t get an upgrade?”
“Oh, she’s quite excellent, I think you’ll find.”
“Wonky chameleon circuit, though. What’s this supposed to be?” He rapped a knuckle on the vertical support post. “Surprised someone hasn’t carted it off. Wood’s a valuable commodity on Calibris.”
“They’d have a difficult time harvesting any material from her,” the Doctor murmured as he unlocked the door of the TARDIS and pushed it open for his guest.
Soren’s face shone with wonder and poorly-controlled excitement as he walked into the time travel capsule, his eyes darting around to take in every detail of the console chamber. As Ace strode over to pull the lever to close the doors, the Doctor stood back, gesturing with his umbrella to present his ship to the mechanic whilst watching the man’s reactions closely. “Your payment.”
The mechanic spun in place to fill his eyes with every detail, then looked over his shoulder at the Doctor. “I have to admit, Doc, I didn’t really expect you’d let me in here.”
“And yet you still let us know where Donus went. I’m quite grateful.” The Doctor’s voice turned stern. “Two weeks. Study her. Take her apart, as long as you put her back together correctly. Some systems aren’t part of the deal, but you needn’t worry as she won’t let you near them. Don’t take anything without permission. Don’t fix the chameleon circuit.” And with a thrust of his finger at Soren’s sternum, he spat out the last rule. “And don’t leave anything on board. She’ll know if you try to install one of your little trackers like the one you hid on Donus’ ship and I expect she won’t be happy about that.”
Soren shrugged. “I like to keep tabs on my customers. Came in handy, don’t you think?”
“Tabs will not be kept. I tell you that for your benefit, not mine.” His thrusting finger turned into an airy wave of his hand. “Oh, and I’ve spread the word to some of the more receptive of my people that there’s a skilled mechanic on Calibris. There are a few who would…” He paused, licking his lips. “They would like to have other options available for maintenance and repair.”
The mechanic bowed. “They’ll always get the best service. Discreet, of course.”
“I am absolutely sure they will.” The Doctor returned his bow, and Ace grinned at him as well. “It was a pleasure doing business with you, Soren, and I hope that we will continue this relationship for a long time to come. Now, shall I move her into your small vehicles bay?”
Soren rubbed his hands together, his eager grin almost glinting evil. “Oh, yes. This, I want to see.” He stepped back to get a good view of the Doctor as he circled the panel to input the coordinates and set the TARDIS in motion.