John hadn't been fond of Christmas for a long time. A holiday that centered around family togetherness kinda sucked when no one in your family had seemed to like you since your mother died.
The decorations were pretty, though. He liked looking at them as he trudged home from his night classes. A lot of houses only had the popular icicle lights, but many sported multi-colored strands, and a few went all-out with Santas, stars, Nativity scenes, or luminaries. If it existed, his neighborhood displayed it.
The only decoration he didn't like was the illuminated lighted reindeer. They startled him, the heads bobbing up and down out of the corner of his eye when he wasn't expecting it. He made himself laugh and chided himself for his nervousness. He was going into the Air Force and could end up in combat if another war started. Sure, he'd be in the air, isolated from the fighting on the ground, but he still needed nerves that were cool and calm. He couldn't be skittish here, not in safe suburbia, where the most heinous crime was a purse stolen from an unlocked car.
He stopped, stretched his arms over his head to ease the burden of his backpack and chucked the deer under its wire-framed chin. It turned its head, seeming to look at him, and John frowned, because wasn't that one of the head-bobbing reindeer, not the head-turning ones? But it swung its head to the other side, so John must have remembered wrong. Or maybe different models did multiple types of movements.
He burrowed his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket, glad that he'd moved to the west coast, but wishing he had a car. Although the weather wasn't nearly as cold as the east coast, it was still too cold for John's taste, especially since his transportation was his feet and the bus. Maybe he'd save up for a cheap used car, anything that would run. Or maybe a motorcycle. That would be even cheaper and have the advantage of being easier to park. His Dad would have bought him a car, a brand new sports car, if John had buckled under and studied business at Harvard. Maybe even a Porsche, like Dave's.
John trudged on, reminding himself that students were supposed to struggle, and that he was happier making his own decisions, instead of living on easy street like a spoiled brat.
He felt an itch between his shoulder blades, an uneasy feeling like he was being watched, but he resolutely did not look back. He never noticed that the reindeer stopped moving its head entirely, staring at his departing figure.
It was barely light the next morning when John stepped onto the porch, sipping his coffee, and checking on the weather. There were two reindeer on his front lawn. He rubbed his face with one hand and looked again, but no, the two reindeer frames were still there. Their lights weren't glowing, because whoever had stolen them and left them on his lawn hadn't gone to the trouble of plugging them in.
He went through his morning routine -- shower, shave, dressing and toast -- before rapping on the front door of the other half of the duplex. His landlord, a wizened old man dressed in a truly hideous flannel robe over gray sweats, peered out.
"John. Is something wrong? You don't normally knock on my door this morning."
John waved at the reindeer. "A couple of kids must have dumped them. I'll find their home tonight."
"You have class, don't you? I'll see if I can find their owner. They'll probably come looking for them anyway."
"Thanks." John had sorta hoped Mr. H would make the offer. He was retired and spent his days chatting with the neighbors and observing life, so had plenty of time.
The day was fairly uneventful, except for the weird guy at lunch. John was taking advantage of the relatively warm midday weather, eating his lunch in the park, tossing a few crumbs at the enthusiastic squirrels, when he heard a loud, "Huh," behind him.
Glancing over his shoulder, John saw a middle-aged guy with gorgeous blue eyes and a receding hairline studying a device in his hand.
"Can I help you?" John asked politely.
The guy was wearing a blue suit, with a white shirt and white sneakers, and had a red and gold striped scarf around his neck. He circled the bench, studying the device rather than looking at John. One side of his mouth tugged downwards and his nose was tilted upwards. "The odds of you being able to assist me are beyond astronomical."
"Hey," John protested, because there wasn't any reason for rudeness.
"Yes, sorry, did I insult your pride? Don't take it personally. It's a failing of the limited ability of your species."
"My species?" The guy looked too clean to be homeless, but that didn't mean he wasn't mentally deficient. "Maybe the squirrels could help you?"
The guy seemed to take him seriously, pointing his device at the squirrels, who sat on their back legs, tails flicking hopefully, front paws primed to grab any offered treats. "No, not the squirrels." He swung the device toward John. "It may actually be you."
"What may be me?" John asked, wondering if he was going to regret asking the question. Encouraging weirdos in the park wasn't wise. But then, not being wise had always been a problem for John, so at least he was consistent.
"Nothing that you would understand or believe. Has anything unusual happened to you lately?"
"The reindeer watch me," John said honestly, which was goofily paranoid of him, because animatronic creatures couldn't be watching him. The fact that some had moved to his lawn was surely the vagaries of a juvenile delinquent. John had done a few senseless acts as a teen, things that seemed completely logical and worthwhile at the time, but that he viewed as silly now that he was in college and supporting himself. Some 15-year-old was probably congratulating himself this morning for being absolutely hysterical and daring.
"The reindeer?" The guy was giving him a look that indicated John had a screw loose in his wiring. "Donner and Blitzen?"
"Donder. It's Donder and Blitzen. And no, not Santa's reindeers." John stood, shoving the remains of his lunch into his Star Wars lunch box. "Just a joke. I have to get back to work."
John took off across the park, wondering if the guy was watching him or had decided to try to talk to the squirrels. Unable to resist, John glanced back, but the guy had disappeared.
Walking home that night, John appreciated that he'd taken time to find his gloves, so he could rub his face periodically, especially his cheeks and the tips of his ears, which tingled with the cold.
The stress of finishing finals must be getting to him, because he was sure the reindeer were watching him again. Maybe he'd go shopping this weekend and look at display models to see how many mannerisms they performed. Or would that be succumbing to hysteria? At least tonight had been his last test before the Christmas break. He could use a few evenings with no studying and no obligations.
John paused on the sidewalk, staring at a reindeer as it pawed the ground. He'd never noticed legs that moved. It almost looked like it was getting ready to walk off the lawn. Then its head turned and tilted up, staring straight at John.
He was going to be an officer in the United States Air Force. He could not possibly be spooked by an animatronic lighted frame. "You looking at me?" John joked, and the reindeer swung its head away and down, pawing the ground. It must be a sophisticated model, with variations on its routine motions.
He started walking again, his stride lengthening, steps quickening until he reached his duplex to see not two but three reindeer on the lawn, all of them illuminated.
"I guess Mr. H. didn't find your owners," John told them quietly, though the old man's half of the duplex was dark, indicating Mr. H would be fast asleep. John's normal speaking voice wouldn't wake him.
He wondered why the old man had gone to the trouble of plugging them in. Making them festive until he could find their home? That seemed overkill, but old people could be odd.
Unlocking the front door, John paused, turning to look back, wondering where Mr. H had plugged them in. He hadn't realized there was an outlet outside and he didn't see any extension cords. Then the reindeer closest to him took a step and that was totally weird because John was sure they didn't move that much. But then another also turned toward John and started walking, not merely a single motion that looked like taking a step in place, but truly walking and how? They were designed to remain connected to electrical cords, not trot around the yard.
Unless they were battery-operated? Remote controlled? John glanced around, but didn't see anyone holding a remote. The streetlights lit the area tolerably well, but there were still lots of shadows where someone could be hiding, making reindeer... walk toward him.
John stepped backwards into the house, and suddenly the reindeer lowered their heads and charged. The reindeer were only framing and lights, but panic overtook John and he slammed the door shut.
There was a loud thud as something hit the door. John flicked the porch light on, and pushed the curtain aside a few inches, peering out to see that the antlers of one deer were caught in the wood. Irrationally, John hoped that Mr. H wouldn't take the cost of a new door out of his security deposit. He'd offer to patch and repair it.
The other two deer were standing behind the trapped one as it struggled to free its antlers. The motion of the curtain must have caught their attention, because their heads swung to stare at John. They began to charge and John frantically backpedaled as the window shattered, the reindeer leaping into the front room. It paused, shaking itself, pieces of glass dropping off its frame and his security deposit was toast.
How could anyone be controlling them by remote? The curtain had been pushed aside when the deer leaped in, but had swung into place when John let it go, so the deer couldn't be visible from outside, but it was still moving. The second deer placed its front hooves on the ruined window frame, peering inside, before hoisting itself up and into the room through the hole. The third deer, freed of the door, looked in, all three heads once again unerringly swinging toward John, where he stood frozen at the back of the room. Their sparkling eyes seemed to glitter with malice.
"Are you always this slow to react? Do you need an engraved invitation?"
John jumped sideways, away from the weirdo who had been in the park and was now in his house.
"What?" John asked stupidly. "How did you get in here?"
In response, the guy curled his fingers around John's hand. "Do you want to die or do you want to run?"
John gaped at him.
"Run!" the weirdo yelled.
Thankfully Denny's was open, because after they'd run out the back door, scrambled over the fence into someone else's yard, run out of the side gate and onto another street, hearing the echoing sound of wire hooves following them, and down several streets until they seemed to have lost their pursuers, seeing the friendly yellow and black Denny's logo was a blessed relief.
Sitting by the window, John wrapped his hands around a cup of coffee, keeping an eye on the street down which they'd run, making sure no reindeer were following. The weirdo had gone into the back to argue with the cook, and maybe he was English, because he had a faint accent, and surely only the English made such a ruckus over the proper way to make tea.
Carrying a presumably correctly made cup of tea and two brownies, the weirdo sat across from John, and pushed a brownie at him. "You need some calories."
Always appreciative of free food, John didn't argue. But good manners required him to offer his hand first. "I'm John Sheppard. Thank you for getting me away from those.... reindeer creatures."
"I'm the Doctor and you're welcome. Though I'd still like to know what makes you special, since you seem to be completely unremarkable among humans, other than perhaps an excessive use of hair product," he said, eyes flicking to John's hair, "and the Csinensis don't normally care about cosmetic issues."
John brushed his hand through his hair protectively. "I have to keep the cowlicks down. And who are the Csinensis and how do you know them and Doctor what?"
"Doctor Who, the joke is supposed to be Doctor Who." He pulled a billfold out of pocket, holding it out for John's inspection. "You Americans don't use language properly, do you?"
"Are you British? And what's with the blank piece of paper?"
"It's not a blank piece of paper. This is my British passport. See? Doctor Rodney McKay. But no, I'm not British. I'm a naturalized citizen with a name much less obvious than John Smith."
"It's a blank piece of paper."
"Really?" The Doctor looked at his own blank piece of paper, as if surprised. "Hmm, perhaps there is something special about you." He tucked the paper away, and patted his pockets, this time pulling out an actual passport, which John took from him and studied. "They insisted I have one. But just call me Doctor."
"Meredith?" John asked, because that was the name on the passport, Meredith Rodney McKay, next to the photo of the guy sitting across from him.
"Yes, ignore that." The Doctor snatched his passport back, tucking it away. "Bureaucrats have a petty sense of unwarranted vengeance. Now why are you attracting the Csinensis?"
"Who are the Csinensis? And why do they look like electronic reindeer?"
"Well, they don't, of course. They don't look anything like reindeer. They're a scavenger race, always looking for new technology and blending with it. The reindeer were only a disguise to get to you, which is frankly odd." The Doctor's intent blue eyes studied John, perplexed. "Organics don't normally interest them."
"I don't have any new technology." John shrugged his shoulders. "I'm a college student. I can't afford gadgets."
"You don't have a cell phone or a laptop?"
"Cell phones? Those brick things? No. I have an answering machine."
"What year is it?"
The Doctor made a dissatisfied sound in the back of his throat. "You don't even know what Y2K is."
"What is it?"
"Never mind, it's not relevant now. Just remember when you hear the term that the world does survive. What about your house? Do you have any technology there?"
Who didn't? "I have appliances. Stove, refrigerator, washer, dryer." He'd been grateful that the house came with a washer and a dryer. The maids had always taken care of his clothes at home, and having to learn how to handle his own laundry while sharing the washer and dryer in his first year at the dorms had been occasionally embarrassing.
"Television? DVD player?"
"I've got a 20" black and white that I bought at a garage sale. I don't have a VHS or a Betamax. I don't know what a DVD player is." The Doctor looked grumpily at him, like he thought John should magically know why the scavenger race who possessed reindeer wanted him. "Wait, seriously? You said the reindeer are a scavenger race? Actual aliens? Like from outer space? Reindeer men from Mars?"
"They're not Ice Warriors from Mars, no, but they are from outer space. Where else would aliens be from?"
"And wait – " John's brow scrunched, trying to remember that really weird geek at boarding school, and that show he used to obsess over. "You're the Doctor? Doctor Who? Like the television series? A Time Lord from the Galapagos or something?"
"Gallifrey, not the Galapagos, and no, I am not a Time Lord from Gallifrey like that show. That show is a pale and often inaccurate imitation of my life."
"The BBC plagiarizes you?"
"They don't even come close to capturing the full breadth and excitement of my many adventures," the Doctor said modestly.
Great. He'd gone from escaping murderous reindeer to chatting with an escapee from the geek funny farm. And there was the answer, wasn't it? Because geeks could be really smart. John remembered the kid at boarding school who used to talk obsessively about Doctor Who. He'd cobbled together engines to make the robot monsters and the dog from the show scoot up and down the hallway on their tiny wheels, and would demonstrate his creations whenever someone expressed any interest. Or sometimes even when they hadn't. John had thought the reindeer couldn't be remote controlled, because the operator couldn't see through the curtains, but this guy had been in the house. This 'Doctor' was surely as bright as that kid at John's boarding school.
"Well," John said, taking a last gulp of coffee to warm him up. "I appreciate the rescue and all, but I need to be going home now."
"You're leaving? Do you have some sort of death wish? Are you suicidal?"
"I'm sure these Csinensis will realize that this organic isn't the organic they're looking for."
"You don't believe me."
The guy was a good actor, or firmly entrenched in his own delusion, because his blue eyes reflected a deep hurt.
"No," John said hastily, because wasn't it dangerous to force insane people to accept reality? "You're the Doctor, a Time Lord from Gallifrey, and the reindeer are aliens from outer space. Just not Mars. But I'm really beat and need to sleep."
The Doctor's fingers circled one of John's wrists. "You're in danger. I don't know why they want you, but I can guarantee you that they'll come back."
"I'll be fine. Thanks for the coffee."
The damage looked horrible in the morning, but easier to handle without the likelihood of being attacked, since there were no reindeer in sight. John was thankful that finals were over, because he wasn't going to flee again, and he needed time to prepare. Whether the weirdo was insane or a criminal or criminally insane, he wasn't going to get the best of John again. Clean-up first, though.
John was sweeping up the glass, relieved that the house had hardwood floors, because the slivers would never come out of carpeting, when Mr. H peered in.
"John? Something distressing appears to have happened."
"Yeah. Vandalism, I guess."
"Mmm," Mr. H murmured in assent. "The door can wait, but we'll need to get the window replaced immediately. You don't want to freeze to death."
"I've got a floor heater," John said, jerking his head toward the device.
"Helpful, but not sufficient. Do you want any help cleaning up?"
"No, I've got it," John said, not wanting to burden the old man, nor wanting him around for the preparations he planned.
"I'll call repair places and see if I can get someone out today."
"Thanks. I was going to come over later on. It's still early."
"Old men don't need a lot of sleep." Mr. H disappeared.
With the basics of the house cleaning done, John bustled around the front yard, trimming the bushes, raking up a few stray leaves. He also set up wires, snares, and a bucket of water, before digging his baseball bat out of the boxes in the garage. He surveyed the yard with satisfaction as the day turned to dusk. Perhaps the whole scenario was a little coyote and roadrunner of him, but John was fond of the classics.
The sounds of hooves alerted him, and he hit the switch that turned on the lights he'd installed, flooding the yard and sidewalk, leaving no shadows. He'd catch the guy and his remote. The noose under the tree caught one of the deer, yanking it rapidly upwards, as it made bleating noises, kicking its legs as it swung upside down.
The water bucket on the rooftop splashed all over the second and it gave a high-pitched squeal as lights fritzed.
The third stared at the door as John stepped outside, its expression sparkly but blank as he swung the bat solidly. If it had been a baseball, he would have hit a home run. Instead the wire frame bent, the head smashed sideways.
Then, to John's complete lack of surprise, the Doctor strolled up his driveway, wearing a maroon suit this time, still with a white shirt and sneakers, but his scarf was green and black. The reindeer hanging from the tree was continuing to struggle, which was odd, as the guy had his hands tucked in his pants pockets, and didn't appear to be working a controller.
"You're smarter than I gave you credit for."
John rested his bat on his shoulder, feeling victorious. "You want to tell me what this is about now?"
"Yes, what is it about?" the Doctor asked the closest reindeer, the one with the smashed head.
To John's astonishment, the glowy lights seemed to detach from the reindeer, stepping out of the wire frame, and solidifying into a very short... alien. It was: humanoid in shape; with two arms and two legs attached to a stubby torso; very large, blue eyes; a small mouth and a thin nose. A grumpy expression graced its face. It was naked, its skin iridescent and shimmering, like the alien wasn't quite substantial. "We need him." Its voice was high-pitched but flat, almost robotic.
"Obviously, even you have better things to do than attack strangers for no good reason. What do you need him for?"
"You give him to us."
"If you have a satisfactory reason for needing his assistance, he may choose to give it to you himself," the Doctor snapped. "But there is such a thing as good manners. You could have asked."
"He could have said no."
"He happens to be here," John said, feeling a little testy. "And what do you need me for?"
"You have the gene. You can help us salvage the ship."
"The gene? What gene?" The Doctor studied him, as if his eyes could pierce John's skin and burrow down to examine his DNA. He snapped his fingers three times. "The Ancient gene. Of course, it's the only thing that makes sense. You've found an Ancient ship," he said to the alien.
"Deserted. Ours. Laws of Salvage."
In his peripheral vision, John noted that aliens were detaching from the other two reindeer, the one making unhappy squawking noises as it struggled to free its foot from his noose. They looked similar, but not identical, to the one facing them. Of course, they would look different, wouldn't they? They weren't a race of clones, if such a thing existed. They were naked too, and John wondered if they didn't feel the cold, thankful that the shimmering intensified around their groin area, making it difficult to see. Not that John wanted to know what alien genitalia looked like.
"Yes, except you can't do anything with it, can you? Even I would have difficulty operating an Ancient ship. They were masters of biometrics, even if irresponsibly absurd with some of their science experiments."
"He can help us."
The other two had walked forward and were standing behind the leader. They echoed him, "Help us."
"Well, what do you say?" The Doctor looked inquisitively at John.
"Yes, you. They don't want me. I can't help them." The Doctor gave an annoyed huff, as if being unnecessary wasn't a state he appreciated.
"Look, I don't… " John's words trailed off. He was still trying to wrap his mind around the truth of aliens, much less the fact that his existence was valuable to them. A weirdo stalking him suddenly seemed like the better scenario. At least he could report that one to the police without being escorted to the funny farm.
The Doctor gave a sigh and tugged him away from the aliens. "Yes, yes, I realize. It's a lot to accept. But here's an unpleasant reality. The Csinensis are very persistent. I can't protect you from them forever and it will be difficult to make them leave you alone."
"Hey, I did a pretty good job protecting myself." John shot a significant look at the damaged reindeer, ignoring that the Csinensis were shifting impatiently, like they were ready to pounce on him even without the benefit of the reindeer frames. They were small, half his size. He could take them if necessary.
"You did quite well," the Doctor admitted, with a congratulatory tone in his voice that pleased John. "But there are only three of them. A ship's crew is 12 to 15 and they don't give up where technology is concerned." He studied John intently and his voice became more wheedling. "Don't you want to go into space?"
"Yes, that's where this ship would be that you could fly. Outer space."
Outer space. They wanted to take him into outer space, the ultimate in flying, and all John had ever wanted to do in life was fly. And that was – "Oh, hell, yes."
"Good!" The Doctor bounced a little on his toes, and turned back to the Csinensis, snapping his fingers at them. "Coordinates, please. We'll meet you there."
The Csinensis glanced at each other, giving long blinks. Two had blue eyes, while the third's eyes were green. "We can take him with us."
"I was born 900 years ago, not nine. He stays with me. He's going to see if he can assist you, not end up a slave. Coordinates."
"You not steal ship."
"I have a ship of my own, thank you very much. We can *not* do this, if you prefer."
"Coordinates are – " The leader rattled off a string of words and numbers that didn't make sense to John.
"We'll see you there. John?"
"Wait, I have to lock up." He turned to the door and then looked back. The Csinensis were walking off, casting suspicious glances at them. "Do I need to bring anything?"
"No, just yourself. I'd say bring any decent tea you have, because I'm almost out, but we're in America. Come along."
"I'm going to get my gloves." John ducked inside the house. Not that he really thought he would need gloves in outer space, but he wanted a moment alone, to contemplate that he'd just agreed to go into outer space with an alien, to meet up with other aliens. He found his gloves, locked up the house, and swung his baseball bat onto his shoulder. "Okay, I'm ready."
"You won't need that," the Doctor said, nodding toward his baseball bat.
John shifted it, making sure it was comfortable. "I'll keep it," he said firmly.
"Violence isn't the answer to any problem."
Planting his feet firmer on the ground, John stared at the Doctor mutely.
"Yes, fine. Humans," the Doctor muttered under his breath. "To my Tardis."
The Doctor took off walking and John followed him. Although the Doctor was an inch or two shorter than John, his stride was long and he walked briskly, and John had to half-jog to keep up with him. He wasn't sure if that was the Doctor's normal pace, or a subtle revenge for keeping the bat. They walked two blocks, before turning left, coming to the neighborhood baseball field. At the edge of the small parking area was a tall blue box, with the words "Police Public Call Box" on it. The Doctor put a key in a lock and opened the door. A pod of some sort, John figured, that would shoot them up into space to the Doctor's ship? There would be room for the two of them to stand in it, but that would be about it. He followed the Doctor inside, and stopped, because the inside was huge, about the size of his duplex's living room, kitchen and bedroom combined, with wood paneled walls, a six-sided console in the middle, a red, velvet couch along one wall, and a wooden coat rack off to the side, by a door. "Wow."
"This is the Tardis," the Doctor announced proudly, flipping switches on the console.
"It is like the television show," John said, remembering that the kid in boarding school also had a six-sided console, though it had been mostly white, where this one seemed to be all wood and brass, very Jules Verne-looking. He wished he'd paid more attention to that kid, since he might know more about what to expect.
The Doctor gave another little huff. "No, the television show is like it."
"Time and space. You can really travel in time and space?"
"Of course. Anywhere, any when."
"I always wanted to fly. I'm going to be a pilot in the Air Force. I never thought I'd get to fly into outer space." John wandered around the room, looking at the console from each side, as the central column began to rise up and down, making a funny whooping sound. They were traveling now, John realized, which was rather disappointing actually, as he couldn't feel it at all. "The ship doesn't feel like it's moving."
"You can go to an amusement park if you want to be twisted around."
"Hey, you asked me to come," John said pointedly, because the guy didn't need to be bad-tempered at him.
"Yes." The Doctor made a little harrumphing noise in the back of his throat, which John thought he was supposed to interpret as an apology. "The Tardis travels faster than their ship, so we'll be there first. Do you want some tea before then?"
"Can't we go out and look around before they show up?"
"They won't have told me the actual coordinates. It'll be a meeting place close to the ship. They're relatively intelligent but not very trusting."
"Oh." John shrugged. "Sure, tea sounds good."
The transition from east coast to west, from his dad's daily domination to living on his own and making his own decisions, had been exhilarating, liberating, and kinda scary. The reality that aliens existed, that the human race was not alone in the galaxy, and that John was in outer space, was even freakier.
The Tardis was stunningly huge, or the Doctor was cleverly managing to lead him in circles as they walked to the kitchen. John couldn't tell, but he was grateful when they reached a room which was both homey and sleek, and the Doctor picked up something that was definitely a kettle and put it on a box with flat circles on the top that must be a stove. The Doctor ordered John around, having him get this out of there, which turned out to be the refrigerator, and put these things in there, and push these buttons on front of something that was apparently an oven, not that John could have guessed the functions of either device by appearances. They settled down at the round, wood table with a selection of snacks, none of which John recognized, but were mostly tasty.
Not all of them, though, as John put his hand over his mouth, acting as if he was stifling a cough, instead spitting out the nasty whatever-it-was.
"Humans don't usually like the crya." The Doctor didn't appear disturbed at John's lack of appreciation. "Your taste buds aren't discriminating enough for its complexity. Here." He shoved over a purple-y bar thing. "You should like this."
And he did, though John couldn't describe the flavor. "It's good," he said, taking another bite.
"One of the things that they often get wrong. That imbecile on the television show rarely eats."
"And you eat… a lot?"
The Doctor glared at him. "I don't gorge myself. But saving the universe is a very tiring profession and my metabolism is extremely fast."
John nodded sagely, agreeing with the Doctor, since that was what he seemed to need. "Good tea," he said.
The Doctor looked suspicious. "I hope your vocabulary extends to words beyond 'good' and 'wow.'"
"I might even occasionally say that something is cool."
Though the Doctor gave one of his harrumphs, one corner of his mouth twisted upwards in a smile, and John grinned back. A weird noise sounded then, like a church bell ringing.
"Proximity alarm. The Csinensis must be approaching." The Doctor rose, waving dismissively as John started to gather up the food. "No, don't worry about it. The house elves will take care of it. And I won't even start on what else she stole from me."
The Doctor headed out, so John didn't bother asking about the 'her,' just followed him on a route that seemed much shorter and more direct. The Doctor flipped a few switches on the console, and part of the wood paneling on one wall slid aside, revealing a view screen. A spaceship appeared on the screen, silvery and aerodynamic-looking and much more John's idea of a proper spaceship. Then the face of a Csinensian filled the screen.
"Yes, of course. I am quite capable of following basic navigational instructions. Where to now?"
The Csinensian rattled off another string of names and numbers, the Doctor nodding as he input the data on the console.
"We'll see you there." The screen disappeared, replaced by paneling. "Next stop, Ancient spaceship!"
This outer space travel was a bit anti-climatic, John decided, as he followed the Doctor out of the Tardis and into a big, empty room. "This is the Ancient spaceship?"
"Cargo hold. Come on." The Doctor took off, striding briskly toward a door on the far wall.
John followed him again, wishing that he'd won the squabble over the baseball bat, and hadn't been made to leave it by the coat rack. The door slid open silently, not any more impressive than the doors at the mall, and then they were in a long corridor. Yet more walking, John's main exercise these days. Only… John stopped walking. "Are the walls brighter?"
"Hmm?" The Doctor stopped and looked around. "Yes, it realizes you're here. Biometrics. The Ancients mastered the subject, mainly because their own carelessness made them."
"And I'm… one of these people?"
"You have their gene, so some time in the distant past, one of your relatives mated with an Ancient."
John tried to wrap his head around that fact. His dad would not be happy to hear they were part-alien, not considering the importance he placed on the family's genealogy. "How distant?"
"Oh, thousands of years," the Doctor said dismissively, as they entered a room.
Early enough that his dad shouldn't mind, if he ever found out and believed. "The bridge?" John asked and this was more like it. There was a chair in the middle that would have been the Captain's, more chairs by consoles with exotic buttons and knobs and tiny displays, and a big view screen showing outer space.
"Yes, the bridge." The Doctor was wandering around, looking but not touching. "Well, do sit," he said, pointing to the Captain's chair. "This is why we came."
John did as instructed, as the door slid open again, the Csinensis entering the bridge. The chair didn't look that comfortable, but it felt good, like it had been made for him, and he felt a strange connection. He leaned back, closing his eyes, trying to relax and understand the sense of welcome he felt.
"You are here. He will operate the ship for us now."
"He will see if the ship is even operational. John?"
"It's operational, barely." John had never been one for meditation, but he thought this deep sense of calm must be why people did it. This awareness in his mind… was that his imagination, or another intelligence?
"It is a warship, with much technology and weapons."
John laughed softly. "It's an empty freighter." The ship became lost in a war of some sort, though the details didn't seem to be available to John. Maybe it thought he would know. It had been delivering supplies to somewhere and had been attacked on the way home and abandoned. To its relief, it had seen the survivors picked up by another one of their ships.
The Csinensis were making grumpy noises, like they didn't like the answer, reminding John uncannily of his dad. "But technology. We must blend with it." One of them was leaning against a console, his body shimmering like he was trying to meld into it.
"It's a cool ship." The technology was amazing, even if it wasn't the best that these Ancients had developed, but the intelligence controlling the ship even more astounding.
"Yes, but what part of biometrics did you not understand? John has a life on Earth and he cannot stay and help you. The only thing he is going to do it shut the ship down."
"Our salvage. Our ship."
"Yeah, okay," John said, because the ship welcomed the idea. Too long alone, with no crew and no purpose and too much damage. He gave it a soft caress of goodbye, wishing they could spend more time together, but respecting its desire. "We've got ten minutes. I think," he added, realizing he wasn't positive his concept of time matched the ship's.
"What did you do?" the Doctor asked, almost in a yelp.
"Set the self-destruct?" John responded weakly, because wasn't that what the Doctor had meant him to do?
The Doctor grabbed John's arm, yanking him up. "Run!"
They watched the ship explode on the view screen from the safety of the hovering Tardis, which John was beginning to realize was a pretty cool ship, despite its goofy exterior. The ability to both fly and remain stationary in space and materialize within other vehicles was extremely impressive.
"The Csinensis are going to be mad at you." The Doctor was lying on the couch, head and feet propped on each arm, fingers crossed over his belly.
"Will they come after me?" He figured he could handle them, but still, it would be kinda scary and awkward to have aliens trying to wreak revenge on him.
"Possibly. Though only immediately, if they do. Once they find a new technology to salvage, they'll forget about you."
John shifted his stance, leaning against the console. "Here's hoping they find something soon then."
"Well...." The Doctor leaped off the couch and began bustling around the console, looking at everything except John. "Do you want to come with me? Space, time, the entire universe, I can take you anywhere, any when, and have you back in time for tea. Or maybe in a few weeks. That should give them time to cool down."
"Tea's not really my drink," John said stupidly.
"Oh. I guess not. You're American. Well, back in time for coffee?"
John swallowed. Time and space, and he could see it all. He'd never dreamed the Doctor would invite him to be a companion. "Back in time for the next semester would be good." That would be six weeks. Though maybe they should pop in quickly on New Year's Eve to give Mr. H the rent check and reassure him John hadn't been kidnapped by the people who smashed up the house.
"Good. A very wise decision." The Doctor bounced with happiness, blue eyes shining. "Let's go." He grinned wildly as he twisted dials and flicked knobs on the Tardis console, before holding up one finger. "One rule though. Next time I say shut something down, try deactivation before total destruction."
John nodded, grinning, and maybe bouncing a bit on his own toes with happiness.
Their voyage was fantastic. They watched the Wright Brothers fly the first plane, chatted with Leonardo DaVinci about the design of his flying machine, and spent two weeks at Cape Canaveral, moving forward in time, watching the Apollo space launches. They even explored calmer methods of travel, because you never knew when you might need your towel, John read to the Doctor, as they enjoyed a leisurely afternoon on the River Cam, taking turns punting and reading aloud the newly published "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
Not that they remained on Earth, though history seemed far safer than other planets, with the dangers of the Sontarans, Cybermen, Daleks, and the Goa'uld, and especially the Goa'uld Dalek with the scary, glowing eyepiece. The Doctor even occasionally let John use his baseball bat, conceding that sometimes violence was hard to avoid.
Then the Doctor would take him to a planet like Farfalla, where John rested on the back of a giant butterfly as it flew from flower to flower, gazing at the blue sky and feeling the gentle waft of air, the flex of the butterfly's spine under him, and knew that fighting all the scary dangers of the galaxy was worth it for the chance of exploring its wonders.
A lifetime passed, John had finished his college degree and his Master's, joined the Air Force, fought for his country, been banished to Antarctica, and avoided being shot down by an Ancient drone, before he saw the Doctor again.
At least, he looked like the Doctor - exactly like the Doctor, with his bright blue eyes and receding hairline - except he hadn't aged the same fifteen years that John had. Did the Gallifreyans age slower? Or had he got into his Tardis and come straight here, intending to meet John again? But he didn't give any sign that he recognized John, not a wink or subtle nod. He was dressed differently, in dark trousers and a bright orange parka, rather than the well-tailored suits and colorful scarves he'd preferred.
John didn't reveal that he knew the Doctor, following his directions to make things appear over his head, like an obedient Air Force officer.
He took his chance when the General, Jackson and Weir wandered off to get some coffee, discussing logistics of the planned expedition. It was a good thing the General and Jackson hadn't associated a mature pilot with his college-age self. Maybe letting the cowlicks go wild had helped.
"Doctor," John said urgently, sitting up. The chair stopped glowing. "It's John."
"Hmm? Yes, Major John Simpson." The Doctor's attention remained focused on his laptop.
"Sheppard. Major John Sheppard. John. Don't you remember?"
"Remember? Remember what?" The Doctor finally looked away from his laptop, toward the equipment hooked up to the chair. "Can you recline again?"
"When we met before? With the reindeer?"
The Doctor gazed vacantly at him. "Were you in Siberia? The pilot?"
"No, not Siberia." John was slowly realizing that the Doctor didn't remember him. Had his memory been damaged? Or could this scientist only be someone who looked like the Doctor? It had been 15 years - maybe John's memory wasn't as good as he thought? But hadn't the Doctor used McKay as his last name? John wished he could remember what was on the passport that the Doctor had waved under his nose the night they'd met. "You really don't remember me?"
"No, I'm sorry. Could you recline again?"
"I must be mistaken," John said in disappointment as he leaned back.
"Must be. Funny, I never realized I had one of those kinds of face. I thought I was more distinctive." The scientist waved at his face, especially his nose and the downward curve of his mouth. Then he touched his left parka pocket, tapping it lightly, before returning his hand to the keyboard.
"Making sure you didn't lose something?"
"Oh – pocket watch." The Doctor pulled a gold pocket watch out of his pocket. "Doesn't work. It's my lucky keepsake. Funny, I'm not sure why I keep it. Must have been my dad's."
"I guess bad memory is a common problem."
"Now can you visualize the schematics for this building?"
John focused, and gave McKay what he wanted. It was easy, so easy, just like it had been on the Ancient ship, though the chair didn't have the same intelligence and personality as the ship.
"We're going on an expedition, to find the lost city of Atlantis. With your Ancient gene, Elizabeth - Doctor Weir - will want you to come too. You will, won't you?"
Off-world, again, not that he could tell anyone that he'd traveled in space before, and offered by a guy who looked so much like the other guy, that John felt a rush of sadness at losing his friend. Would he ever see the Doctor again? At least he'd be back in space, even if not bouncing around time. And space had been cool, very cool. "Yeah, sure," he said, swallowing. "I'll come."
~ the end ~