So, there I was, moments away from certain death. I got myself a martini. I mean, what else?
My name isn't Jack Harkness, but I answer to it. I also answer to gorgeous, honey, lover-boy, and "what a great ass." My death was going to reduce the entire universe's level of sexy by at least ten percent. Deep down in my stomach, I could feel more than a touch of dread, but I did my best to ignore it. No point in spending your last moments feeling bad, you know? Better to think about the good times, the drinking and dancing and kissing by moonlight (or starlight, or artificial light; I'm not particular). People I enjoyed who I hadn't stolen from, people who enjoyed me back. Crazy stunts with aircars, laughter, good music—
I was definitely hearing Glenn Miller.
First thought: what? Second thought: computer's malfunctioning. Third thought: but it's not coming from the speakers. I turned around and there was something standing in my ship.
I knew what it was, of course. It was the same weird-looking time capsule that kicked off the whole mess which I wasn't going to think about, not in my last moments—except that they might not have to be last moments, and I was out of the chair and scrambling for the capsule before my brain registered what was truly impossible about it. I rushed through the doors and stopped.
Only thought: what the bigger how what can't be doesn't fit not possible not possible not possible what the hell HOW?!
The capsule was the size of a closet. A small closet. You could have fit about five people inside, but only if they were college students, drunk, and looking for an excuse to grope each other anyway. The inside of the capsule was—just completely impossible, all right? Huge. The size of an apartment at least. Not illusion, not something you could do with clever holoscreens. You could hear the size of it in the way the music sounded and besides, the two people inside it were way over there.
The commander of the capsule—his friend Rose just called him Doctor, as if it were a name and a title in one—said, "Close the doors, will you? Your ship's about to blow up. There's gonna be a draft."
I did it. And then I didn't crumple against the closed doors and start laughing hysterically, which, believe me, was a hell of an achievement.
"Welcome to the TARDIS," the Doctor said.
For a crazy, terrifying, soul-in-freefall moment, I thought he meant a real TARDIS. And I thought about wrenching the doors open and running back into the fireball.
Sanity caught up with me a second later, of course. If I wasn't a fast thinker, I wouldn't have survived this long. If you had a ship like this, of course you'd name it Tardis. Just like people call cities Avalon or mountainous planets Shangri-la.
"Much bigger on the inside," I said. I didn't quite hit "nonchalant," but I damn well nailed "not gibbering." I was proud of myself.
The Doctor locked eyes with me. "You'd better be."
It wasn't a threat any more than a glacier or a freight train is a threat. Threats can be argued with or bargained down or countered.
Well, I'd already known the man was incredibly dangerous. To me, at least. At the end of the mess-which-I-wasn't-going-to-think-about-yet, he'd flensed me to the bone with words—not insults, just a cold, clear analysis of the horrible thing that I'd made happen. He'd left me with nothing but childish protests—but I didn't mean to, I didn't know, as if that had ever mattered to anyone, anywhere. So after I escaped (I always escape—whether I deserve to or not, I always escape), I turned my ship around—my stolen Chula warship, full of systems that I didn't entirely understand and wasn't qualified to tinker with—and tried to catch a bomb in a stasis field that I knew I might not have fixed right.
In other words, because the Doctor talked to me, I nearly died a hero. That's not just dangerous. That's deadly. If you ever meet someone who can do that with words, and you don't trust them with your life and soul—and it's bone-deep stupid to trust anyone like that even if they're your mother and a canonized saint—
But believe me. Believe a conman on this one thing. If you ever meet someone like that. Just. Run.
From there, though, the evening got better. And considering that I'd just escaped from certain death, that's saying a lot. For one thing, there was Rose. I would say she was playing Good Cop to the Doctor's Bad Cop, but that implies strategy, and she didn't have one. Or an agenda. Or a game, or a plan, or a role, or any of the things that usually give you a handle on people. She just wanted to have a few dances and celebrate the fact that everybody lived.
(Not much thanks to me. But I wasn't going to think about that yet.)
So after a lot of Glenn Miller and a three-way waltz which was fun, if chaotic, we ended up in a sort of den— or sitting room, I guess, since both Rose and the Doctor had English accents. (Entirely different English accents; they weren't from the same place any more than they were from the same era.) The Doctor found something to toast with in a liquor cabinet that looked like real teak (fifty thousand Halandrian credits if it was cloned, well over a million if it wasn't, and why was I pricing things in my head when I didn't intend to steal from these people?) I didn't recognize the name, or even the writing on the bottle—you can't really be an expert in all eras without a working uplink—but it tasted the way yellow caelia flowers smell and it felt like a slow-burning coal.
I considered trying to match drinks with the Doctor. It's an easy way to win respect in a lot of eras, and Time Agents specifically have our livers modified to process ridiculous amounts of alcohol. Then I noticed a glint in his eye and decided I was smarter than that. This ship had to be from further up the line than I was, probably much further. The remarks the Doctor had made about small brains implied that even if he was related to h. sapiens mundi, he considered himself a different species. He didn't read like a civilian any more than he read like a Time Agent and I had no idea what sort of mods he was carrying.
Besides. Did I want to provoke a dominance match with this man? No. No, I did not.
Rose, on the other hand—it took absolutely nothing at all to get her talking about herself. It wasn't ego (believe me, I know ego); she was quite definite that nothing exciting happened to her before she met the Doctor. She just couldn't imagine that I might not be safe to confide in.
"So, this Shireen," I said at one point. "Girlfriend?"
Rose sputtered for a moment. "No! What—why do—did I make it sound like—"
"What you get for takin' the American language patch," the Doctor said. "Don't know what mate means to the rest o' the world."
Rose turned pink. "Friend," she said. "Best friend. So—you're not actually American, then?"
"No, I picked up my patch on the black market. When you're a criminal looking for a dead language, you take what you can get." Besides, sounding American in London is a nice excuse for getting trivial things wrong.
That provoked a reaction—a startled blink, followed by growing distress. "Ever read Beowulf?" the Doctor asked her.
She shook her head. "Didn't do A-levels, remember?"
"Wouldn't understand it without some sort o' translation, anyway. 'S English, technically, but nothing like you'll ever hear in your world. Hwaet, we gardena in geardagum, theodcyninga thrym gefrunon, hu tha aethelingas ellen fremedon—fifty-first century English is at least as different as that. Doesn't mean you've gone and gotten invaded, or destroyed, so stop thinkin' that."
I reminded myself not to pigeonhole the Doctor by the way he sounded. During my time in nineteen forty-one, I'd gotten used to British accents of all kinds, gotten a feel for which ones were considered high-status and genteel. His wasn't. It had a rougher edge to it. Not the sort of accent you hear and think, that guy probably has some ancient literature memorized. Much less that he would quote it like that, with a sense of quiet, rolling power.
God, he was sexy. In a not-sure-I-even-liked-him, playing-with-fire sort of way.
But that was a lot less startling than what Rose had just done, which was exactly what the Doctor told her to. She "stopped thinking that," instantly. He said there wasn't a problem so she quit being worried. Reality had spoken.
I don't even remember what it's like to trust someone like that. I'd sooner leap off a cliff.
"When are you from?" I asked her.
"Two thousand and five, why?"
"No particular reason." That—well, it might be the reason these two weren't swiving like rabbits. Time gives you advantages that an amateur doesn't even notice, everything from a better understanding of psychology to minor genemods that make you seem sexier. He could have a hell of a lot of power over her, if he chose to take it. Maybe he was keeping his distance because he couldn't be sure how much of her attraction was her own choice.
(How I knew they weren't going at it: I'm not sure how to explain, honestly. If enough of your life depends on reading people, you just know. She trusted him, loved him, was attracted to him, and was entirely uncertain how he felt about her. For his part, there was something dark in his attitude—I'd gut myself to keep her safe from me, don't think I'd do any less to you—but also an almost adolescent confusion. I think she likes me. Me. Isn't that against one of the laws of the universe? Should I maybe pretend I don't notice?)
It still left a massive mystery: why he'd brought her along in the first place. No matter how I turned it around in my head, I couldn't get that to make sense. "I'm glad," I said. "The twenty-first century is good."
"Yeah? Why's that?" She expected a punchline. When she smiled, she poked her tongue out between her teeth. I knew at least one planet where it was an obscene gesture, and it was insanely cute.
I turned up the smile a few notches. "What do you think?" Slightly more seriously, "There are times and places where women have to treat flirting as a threat. And I hate having to visit them; it gets rid of, oh, about eighty percent of my conversation." Everyone likes a man who can poke fun at himself. Did I do it because it was part of my personality, or because it put people off their guard? And should it bother me that I didn't know? "If you were from one of those times, I'd have to feel guilty about dancing with you. And that would be tragic."
"Afraid you don't remember how it goes, guilt?" the Doctor said.
"Ignore him," Rose advised.
"He stopped the bomb. Remember? Large, round, explosive—"
"Deadly," I put in. "I nearly died a fiery, valiant, heroic death."
"Nah." And the Doctor was all ear-to-ear grin again. "No way I'd let you ruin this day with any o' your 'dyin'' rubbish."
After that, I told a few stories about me getting into trouble, clothing optional. (Everyone may like a man who can poke fun at himself, but everyone loves to picture me naked. How many of the stories are true—well, I am a conman, after all. Embellishment may have occurred.) Rose giggled and sometimes blushed. The Doctor seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself, but now and again I noticed his eyes on me.
It isn't often that people can make me feel naked. Nudity doesn't make me feel naked. But I felt like the Doctor could see right through my skin.
And then, at what felt like three in the morning, the party broke up by mutual consent and we all went off to bed. Alone, but just this once, I wasn't complaining. I knew what was coming.
I closed the door of my new room behind me, leaned up against it, and started to shake.
Gas masks. Gas masks that pushed their way out of peoples' faces, out of their mouths, like malevolent snouts. All of humanity transformed into horrible, pitiable zombie-things with flat glass eyes, shambling through their crumbling cities in search of a mother they would never, ever find, forever frightened and forever lonely and all because some stupid, stupid conman had a bright idea—
That was if the paradox didn't collapse the space-time continuum, but for whatever reason, that possibility wasn't hitting me half so hard. Too big to deal with, I guess. The thing that kept going through my head was the sound of the gas mask growing, the smell of it, like cooling rubber, the—
My room had an attached bathroom. I stumbled in there and threw up everything I'd eaten since I was twelve.
I was pretty much done—still heaving, nothing coming out—when a hand landed on my shoulder. I made a sound that bore absolutely no resemblance to a terrified six-year-old, twisted around, remembered halfway through reaching for it that my sonic blaster was entirely useless, and prepared to fight barehanded for my life.
"Here," the Doctor said. "Wipe your mouth."
I took a deep breath. Then another one. Then I said, "Do not—"
The Doctor gave me a look.
I changed my tone mid-sentence. "—sneak up behind me, please." I took the wetwipe he was holding out. "Thank you."
A very, very small nod of acknowledgement. "Now drink this. Sip, don't gulp." It was a glass of water. He followed it up with a toothcleaner capsule. I bit down on it, waited for the cool non-taste to fill up my mouth, and then spat into the sink.
"Feelin' any better?"
I was still shaking. "Not—maybe a little bit." The Doctor nodded and steered me out of the bathroom, over to the bed. He sat down next to me, not touching. "It—it's just—Algy. Algernon Carlyle. He was—he was just a bit of fun, really, a way to pass the time while I waited for you, but that doesn't mean I didn't—" I swallowed hard. "He'd never been fucked by anyone who actually liked him, before. I had to teach him things I knew when I was fourteen. He liked lacy underwear, which would have been adorable except it was all tied up in this tangle of contempt and hate and desire, more of a compulsion than a preference. I knew I didn't have the cultural background to understand half the things that were eating him alive, so I just tried to enjoy him and make sure he knew I wasn't ashamed of him, and he drank it all down like he was dying of thirst. And I saw—I saw his eyes bulge and stretch out and turn into glass, I saw—and I did that to him. I did that to him."
"Easy, lad." For once, there wasn't the slightest edge to the Doctor's voice. I remembered that he'd called me lad just after I caught the bomb. "Your Algy's all right. I saw him. Same daft face he had all along."
I nodded jerkily.
The Doctor studied me, the corner of his mouth quirking very slightly. "You never did run a con in Pompei."
My inner alarms woke up, not all at once, but with a definite feeling that they'd let something past them. "Of course I—"
"Do not lie to me."
I sat absolutely still for at least five seconds. Then I said, very carefully, "Technically, all I said was that Pompei would be ideal for self-cleaners. There are a number of reasons not to use it. For starters, something about that particular place-time gives vortex manipulators fits."
"It would, yeah," the Doctor said. "But that's not why you stay away."
I forced my tone to lightness. "Well, no. It's depressing, knowing that everyone you meet is going to die next week. I don't do my best work under those conditions. Call it a character flaw."
"Don't think I will, if it's all the same." After a moment, the Doctor added, "You did all right there, at the end. You were stupid—criminally stupid—and you should be shakin' at the thought of it. But you turned around. You came back. And you saved lives. You hold onto that, hard as you can." He gripped my hand, as if to demonstrate. "Keep it with you. Use it to burn away the nightmares. You. Saved. Lives."
Gods of my ancestors, the things this man could do with his voice. I mean, I think I'm a smooth talker, but he made those three words into something—something like a call to arms, and more. You saved lives—it sounded like one of the great slogans, like all for one and one for all, not just something a person says but something they could be—
Someone else, maybe. Not me.
The Doctor let go of my hand. "You gonna be okay, now?" he said, in a perfectly normal voice.
"I'll be magnificent." I made myself smile. "Probably going to feel all right, too."
The Doctor snorted and stood up. "Get some sleep, Captain. There's analgesics in the cupboard if you need 'em." He nodded toward the bathroom. "Think your ego's a touch inflamed."
And he was gone before I had a chance at a comeback. I let my breath out and lay back on the bed. I was alive. I was alive, and that was the important thing. It's who I am, in a way. Never a hero but not quite a villain. Never making the world better, but not making it all that much worse, either.
As far as I know. I'm missing some memories—approximately two years worth, according to physiological dating—and during that time, I could have been anything. A murderer. A rapist. Or, okay, a shining beacon of justice, but I think that's pretty unlikely. I know myself a little better than that.
Even if I'm not always sure there's anything underneath the smile.