The lab was blissfully quiet as the man continued his work, slowly shuffling beakers, drawing a sample from one and then another, scribbling haphazard notes, and rewriting a frustrating formula over and over again. For years this project had consumed his waking hours, mentally if not physically. He only paid half attention to work these days; his mind was still measuring and analyzing and anticipating that night’s results.
Why he spent so much time in the lab was a question that fascinated new recruits. The more experienced of his employees had learned to leave him alone when he got like this, obsessed and determined and slightly mad. New recruits were more curious. They dared each other to break into his lab to examine his project. He’d retconned and fired all who’d tried. After all, this was his idea, and when he finally succeeded, then he would have the adoration and affections of anyone and everyone.
Fame and glory alone was not the only thing that made him devote hours every day to his experiments. Sometimes it was just the idea of escaping from the constant swirl of past and present and future and possibilities swirling around. It was enough to drive anyone around the bend, and he was supposed to be in charge of it all.
And then there was the escape from the new recruits. Chemicals didn’t talk back to him or try to seduce him when he was trying to work, then turn around and mutter things behind his back. As if they, young and silly as they were, knew more about time and physics and life than he did! What was the Agency teaching these days?
He dwelled on his simmering anger as he cleared up for the night. Another exhausting day at the office, followed by a few grueling hours working on his experiments. Now he had time for maybe five hours’ sleep before he had to start the whole frustrating thing over again. He cleaned the test tubes, turned off the myriad of machines, and carefully inspected his petri dishes.
When he came to the last petri dish at the end of the line, he froze in mid-yawn. Where last night there had been nothing, today there was a golden speck.
Exhilaration shot through him as his mouth exploded into a rare grin. He checked the dish’s label, and copied its formula to his notes. His fingers tingled as they formed the letters, quivering with the realization of his discovery. Night after night of headaches, tears of frustrations as he pressed on with his experiments, fueled by little food or sleep but ample ambition – all were finally paying off. He’d done it! He really had!
He scooped the petri dish up in his hand and spun around the room in excitement, caressing his specimen like it was his child. In a way, it was. He even allowed himself to laugh, a gravelly cry that was so seldom used his new recruits would have been shocked to hear it.
Take that, the man thought venomously of the stupid new recruits who mocked him. He’d done it!
That was when the voice started. As the man danced around the room, the voice seeped into his mind with every syllable, echoing his joy and vengefulness and infusing a streak of its own curiosity.
The man stopped dancing and peered at the petri dish in his hand. That was….strange. He had succeeded, right? A surge of vengefulness replaced his doubt almost immediately. Of course he was fine. He was fine, and he was having the last laugh. Ha, with this, he’d be able to retire tomorrow! Retire before age 45, no less!
His joy dimmed slightly when he realised his publisher or anyone else he might have told of his discovery was asleep. No matter. A few hours and the fame, the adoration, the fortune, the early retirement – all would be his by this time tomorrow!
By the next night, the man was dead.
Fortuna’s chips, Rose thought as she licked the grease from her lips, were nearly as tasty as Earth’s. Although its chip shops, she decided as she glanced around the stained linoleum walls of the diner, left something to be desired.
“So what have you been up to then, Jackie-boy?” asked the Doctor, lounging back in the booth they occupied.
Jack leaned back in the opposite side of the booth, hands behind his head. “Let’s see….In summary, looked for a version of you that corresponded with my timeline. Died a couple times. Looked for you. Joined Torchwood. Looked for you. Died some more. Looked for you. Avoided London during the Blitz. Had lots of fun keeping Torchwood away from you during the 70s….”
“Erm, thank you?”
“Looked for you, died some more. Watched Rose grow up. You were an adorable five-year-old, by the way.”
“You spied on me?” Rose said indignantly, swatting the Doctor’s hand as he tried to take one of her chips.
“Only saw you twice, is that a crime?” Jack complained before ticking off on his fingers a few more items. “Died a few more times. Looked for you…died some more. And then I had a field day when all three of us landed in Cardiff. Honestly, all three of us, practically on Torchwood Three’s doorstep, with that bloke of Rose’s, going after Blon the Slitheen, remember?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Rose, words muffled as she shoved another chip into her mouth.
“Do you realise the strings I had to pull to make sure I neither met myself or you and nobody arrested you right there on the spot?”
“I am forever in your debt, Captain Harkness,” the Doctor said melodramatically, stealing one of Rose’s chips.
“Oh, really?” Jack leaned forward, mouth widening in sheer delight.
The Doctor, realizing his horrible mistake, quickly babbled, “Forever meaning not really, debt meaning you can have a favor that does not involve any physical contact with me. Or Rose.” He thought. “Or the TARDIS.”
Rose stifled a snort with another chip.
“You’re no fun at all,” Jack complained. He clasped his fingers together behind his head and leaned back again, pondering. “I want….my coat.”
“Your coat,” the Doctor repeated guardedly, searching for innuendos.
“I have this World War II coat back in my Torchwood office. It’s comfy, warm, and makes me look even more dashing and heroic then I already am.”
“Isn’t there a World War II coat in the wardrobe?” Rose asked idly.
Jack shook his head. “Nuh-uh. I want my coat.”
“Men and their coats,” she sighed.
“Hey, don’t knock the coat. You don’t knock the Doctor’s coat – ”
“Janis Joplin gave me this coat!”
“ – You didn’t knock his leather jacket. What happened to that thing, anyway?”
“I’m not really sure,” replied the Doctor, fishing out another one of Rose’s chips and popping it in his mouth. “I hung it back up in the wardrobe room, and it just disappeared one day.”
Rose blushed heavily, and stuffed more chips into her mouth to hide the scarlet colour spreading through her cheeks. Within seconds, she had finished the whole lot.
“You done?” Jack smirked knowingly. Cheeks fading back to their original colour, Rose nodded.
“Allons-y, then!” declared the Doctor. He stood and rummaged through his pockets, extracting an assortment of change. “Let’s see….I hope they accept Freytusian money. Think this is enough to buy….well, one chip.” He plonked the heavy coin on the table, took Rose’s hand, and hustled for the door. Jack winked at the waitress before scooting after them.
One quick TARDIS trip later, Jack popped in and out of Torchwood Three, returning with a large rucksack and dressed in his beloved WWII coat. He slung the coat off and draped it over the Doctor’s on a coral strut.
“So what’s in the rucksack, then?” asked Rose in a singsong.
“Jaaaack…” the Doctor eyed the rucksack suspiciously. “You just said your coat.”
“Trust me, you’ll want it,” Jack grinned. With a flourish, he opened the flap of the rucksack and pulled out….
“You found his hand?!” Rose exclaimed.
The Doctor gawked at the hand bubbling in the jar, then at Jack. His voice rose to an indignant high pitch. “You found my hand and decided to pickle it?!”
“Would you have rather let it decompose?” Jack said, exasperated. “Do you want it or not?”
“I want it,” the Doctor decided, taking it and bending to shove it underneath the console. “Might come in handy sometime, right? Handy, eh?” Rose and Jack rolled their eyes. “Oh, well….” He straightened and twirled a lever. “I know! We’ll have a thank-you trip. Just for you, Jack.”
“Do I get an elaborate apology, too?” asked Jack, looking like a child at Christmas.
The Doctor solemnly saluted. “Thank you, Captain Jack Harkness, for valiantly keeping Torchwood from doing nasty things to me while I was exiled to the tiny planet you lot call home.”
“Exiled?” Rose wondered as the time rotor kick-started.
“Waaay back, hundreds of years back, got executed—”
“—and exiled to Earth in the 1970s,” explained the Doctor, flicking some switches on the console and twirling a gear. “Joined up with UNIT, the Brigadier—have you met him yet, Rose? Put it on my to-do list—and Sarah Jane, you’ve met her! Blimey, that was all ages ago—”
“Oh, I remember that one,” reminisced Jack fondly, “Frilly dandy, wasn’t it?”
“Frilly?” commented Rose, picturing the Doctor before her in lacy frills and arching an eyebrow.
“Ha!” Jack smirked, “That’s not the only crazy thing he’s worn—”
“Have you been stalking me?” accused the Doctor.
“Maybe….” said Jack, shrugging. “Never actually got to meet any of you. Saw the pictures, though—frilly dandy, curls and scarf, short with a brolly, clown trousers. And I already knew about big ears and leather.”
“Oh, very flattering, that is. Were those the pictures Torchwood had then?”
“And this you. Big hair and bigger mouth. What order do those go in, by the way?”
“Forget that; what’d you get exiled for?” asked Rose, already plotting to ask Jack for the pictures.
“Oh, this should be good, never did figure this one out,” said Jack excitedly.
“Er…” the Doctor rubbed the back of his neck. “Nicking the TARDIS, saving the universe, not being a good little Time Lord, that sort of thing.”
“You stole the TARDIS?!” cried Jack and Rose simultaneously.
The TARDIS landed with a crash, throwing them all to the ground, but the Doctor was up and ushering them towards the doors within seconds.
“Here you go, Jack, Aloria, lovely planet, 51st century, just in time for the Festival of Peace and Love!” He pushed the doors open and waved them outside with a flourish.
Questions about the Doctor’s crimes vanished as Rose and Jack took in the scene before them. They’d landed in a bustling bazaar, teeming with vendors loudly hawking their goods under tents made of leaves. In the narrow passageways between tents, Alorians jostled past each other. They were a humanoid people, a bit more solidly built and a tinge greener than the average human. Most overwhelming about the whole scene, however, was the smell. Scents of exotic fruits, sizzling meat, and fresh flowers hung so thick in the air they were practically tastable.
“Perfumes and teas!” cried the nearest vendor, an old woman missing half her teeth. She squirted a bottle of perfume right underneath Jack’s nose as they passed. “Fall in love! Make others fall in love with you!”
“Trust me, he doesn’t need any of that!” declared the Doctor, shoving Jack past the toothless woman.
“But…” Jack’s face hosted a dreamy expression.
“Please don’t tell me there was aphrodisiac in that,” the Doctor groaned.
Jack sneezed, then shook his head to clear it. “Whatever that stuff was, it stings. My head’s all fuzzy now….”
“Funny word, fuzzy,” mused the Doctor, tasting the word in his mouth, “Fuzzy, fuh-ZEE, fuzzzzzz…ee. ”
“So, Festival of Peace and Love?” Rose laughed as Alorians around them gave them strange looks.
“Yes!” the Doctor beamed as they continued past the hawking vendors into the centre square. “Fourth day of spring on Aloria—well, what you’d call spring—they throw a huge festival, with fireworks, and flowers, and delicious food. And there tends to be a lot of….love.”
Jack grinned. “Sounds great.”
“Mind you,” the Doctor continued, glancing around in puzzlement, “Not that this isn’t a crowd, but there really ought to be more people here, more diversity, for such a big festival. It’s a huge tourist attraction…They usually have bigger tents…And I don’t see any other humans, do you?” He tapped the shoulder of a nearby Alorian, a paunchy middle-aged man. “Excuse me, how are you enjoying the festival?”
“Festival?” the man looked confused. “What festival?”
“The festival,” prompted the Doctor, “Festival of Peace and Love?” The man remained puzzled. “The festival your planet throws every year? Fireworks, flowers, food, love? You’re not recalling any of this at all?”
“Oh that festival?” chuckled the Alorian in recognition, “We haven’t celebrated that since I was nine!”
The Doctor paused. “Nine? How old are you now, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Nearing twenty-one now,” he boasted, “And still got quite a bit to go, I’m quite a wealthy man after all!” His eyes widened. “Oh, you’re human!” He beamed wildly, snatching the Doctor’s hand and shaking it vigorously.
“Actually, I’m not—” the Doctor started, but the man had already moved on to Rose, who looked quite bemused.
“Can’t tell you how wonderful this is!” he continued, moving on to Jack. The captain grinned warmly, eager for much more than a handshake, but before he could say anything more the Alorian had cried, “Oh this is wonderful!” And dashed off.
“Twenty-one?!” the Doctor objected. “That can’t be right!”
“And lookin’ good,” remarked Jack, grinning wolfishly.
“Nice man, but looks a bit old for twenty-one, doesn’t he?” Rose commented.
“Actually, Jack’s sort of right,” said the Doctor, running his hand through his hair in bewilderment. “Mayflies of the Hollin Galaxy, the Alorians. They’re fully grown by age two and live until about ten. And their year’s about half the length of Earth’s, so that works out to an average lifespan of five Earth years really.”
“You mean he’s lived twice his species average life span?” whistled Jack, “Looks like I’ll fit right in here.”
“And no festival?” continued the Doctor, brow still furrowed in bafflement, “What rubbish is that? Because this is definitely Aloria….”
“Failure on the first try?” smirked Jack, “You really know how to show a guy a good time.”
“But that can’t be right,” said the Doctor, frowning, “It just can’t.”
“So you got the date wrong. Better luck next time, yeah?” Rose wrapped her arm around his. “This place’s not half-bad anyway.”
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—my history’s perfect!” He gazed around as if searching for someone to jump out and yell ‘April Fools, the festival’s back on.’ “Something’s off. Even the air smells a bit funny, can’t you smell it?”
Rose and Jack both inhaled deeply. “There’s so many smells going on here I don’t think I’d know,” admitted Rose.
“So much to smell…and so much to see,” said Jack, eyeing a group of giggling girls disappearing around the corner on the other side of the square.
“Can I—?” he started.
“It’s your thank-you present,” the Doctor sighed, shrugging. “Back at the TARDIS in a couple hours.”
Jack mock-saluted and took off.
“What is that smell?” the Doctor wondered aloud, sniffing the air. “It’s not aphrodisiac, it’s something else…”
Rose leaned in closer so her lips hovered right by his ear. “Desire, maybe?”
The Doctor grinned at her, “Actually it smells sweet. Smells…” He sniffed again, and twisted his face in disgust. “Like pears. I hate pears…”
“Oh, don’t start!” Rose moaned, giving him a light shove.
“Alright,” the Doctor relented. “I won’t talk about the disgusting slimy green excuse for fruit your planet calls—”
“You’re just mad that bloke thought you were a lowly human,” Rose teased, and he shut his mouth for a brief moment. Taking advantage of the split second before his gob started up again, she took his hand and squeezed it. “You do realise you’ve taken me to a bazaar....”
“Or maybe the smell’s grapes, I like grapes, grapes are brilliant!” As the Doctor registered what Rose had said, he let out a loud groan. “Oh, no—”
“Time to go shopping!” she said gleefully, dragging him towards the nearest tent, where a woman with mousy hair sold all sorts of jewelry. “Just think of it as a little shop.”
“I do like a little shop…” he said thoughtfully.
Rose, barely containing squeals of excitement, snatched the psychic paper from the Doctor’s pocket and started sorting through all the gleaming bobbles. The Doctor looked thoroughly bored until he spotted a gaudy hat topped with dangly tubular appendages. He mashed the hat over his hair and inspected his reflection in the nearby mirror, preening. He clearly liked it. Rose thought he looked like a squid was trying to swallow his head.
After much deliberation, Rose finally decided to buy some bright blue beads that caught her eye. Her mother would love them.
“Can I have some of these?” Rose asked the shopkeeper.
“You’re human!” The woman exclaimed, straightening her dress as if meeting an important diplomat. “Oh, it’s been ages since one of you have come! This is wonderful!”
“Thanks,” Rose beamed. “How much for these?”
“Four,” the woman pronounced.
“Four…?” Rose asked as she held out the psychic paper.
“Oh, no, no!” The woman didn’t even glance at the paper, waving her hand dismissively. “Just give me your hand, dearie, that’ll be payment.”
“Er, alright.” Slightly confused, Rose shoved the psychic paper back into her pocket and tentatively extended a hand, which the woman gripped tightly. With her other hand, she pulled out a large thorn tied around her neck.
“Wait, hold on—” Eyes wide, Rose tried to jerk her hand away, but the woman was clutching it too tightly. Ignoring her protests, the woman firmly stabbed it deep into Rose’s palm.
“Ouch!” The thorn dug though her skin, drawing blood. All at once, a sense of emptiness overwhelmed her, as if her insides had been sucked out through a straw and all the heat was draining from her body. Her hand was numb, her head felt as if it were floating, and her cry diminished to a whimper.
“What’re you doing?!” The Doctor snapped, the funny hat flying off his head as he whirled towards them.
The thorn dislodged from her hand with a slight popping sound, and Rose yanked her hand away, gasping. Light-headed, she stumbled woozily to lean on the table.
“It’s payment,” explained the woman, puzzled at the Doctor’s reaction. “We agreed on four.”
“Four what?!” He snatched Rose’s injured hand and watched the blood streaking down her palm in dismay.
“Four months, of course. Here you go dearie.” She held out the small pouch of beads towards Rose’s uninjured hand, and a clean rag. “Bit of a bleeder, aren’t you? Here.”
The Doctor seized the rag. “She’s human, she’s got higher blood pressure than you!” He quickly wrapped the rag around her hand, then stood rigidly, glowering at the vendor. “Four months?!”
“They’re very good beads!”
“Four months of what?! Servitude, slavery, what?!”
“Four months of time,” said the woman slowly, as if talking to a particularly dim-witted child.
“Yes, well, she wants a refund,” retorted the Doctor, letting go of Rose’s bloody hand and shoving the pouch back at the vendor. “Give it back. Whatever you took from her, give it back right now.”
“Refund? It doesn’t work that way, sorry.” The vendor shifted uncomfortably, still fingering her thorn.
Rose tottered uncertainly and laid her uninjured hand on the Doctor’s arm. “Doctor, look, I’m fine.” She showed him her wrapped palm. “Just a prick. Let’s just…go, yeah?”
But the Doctor was already whipping out his sonic screwdriver and running it along the thorn necklace, careful not to prick his fingers. “It’s absorbent. But absorbing what? I’ve never seen anything like it.” His eyes moved from the screwdriver to the vendor. “Where’s it from?”
“Everyone’s got one.” The woman irritably snatched it back from the Doctor and rewrapped it around her neck.
“What do you mean, everyone’s got one?” said the Doctor through clenched teeth.
“It’s how we pay for things. It’s illegal to pay any other way.”
The Doctor glanced around her tent full of merchandise. “You all stab each other for payment?”
“Yes,” she said exasperatedly. Spotting a young Alorian woman eyeing her tent, she shooed the Doctor away. “Now, unless you’re planning on buying more, I have customers…”
But the Doctor wasn’t leaving. “Who’s in charge?”
“No one,” answered the shopkeeper simply, tilting her body to peek around the Doctor.
“What, it’s some sort of democracy then? Group assembly, you vote?”
“No, no one is in charge.” The woman put her hands on her hips, irritated.
“Well there must be someone, somebody who’s responsible for keeping this place running!”
“The Vine,” she said, glaring.
“The Vine,” the Doctor repeated.
“The Vine.” The shopkeeper nodded in agreement.
“The Vine? Who’s he? What sort of rubbish name is that anyway, ‘The Vine?’”
Rose, fingering her makeshift bandage, raised an eyebrow. “Says ‘the Doctor.’”
The Doctor sighed. “Point taken. Where can I find this Vine fellow?”
“You can’t!” squeaked the shopkeeper. “Not unless you want to face bankruptcy.” Her hair bobbed more as she spoke. “When you’re ready, the Vine will bring you to him, that’s what they always say…He goes for the humans first, always the humans, but they’ve stopped coming…” She drifted off, then replaced her hands on her hips. “Get out!”
“Why humans?” the Doctor demanded. “What makes them so special?”
“GET OUT!” the woman shrieked again.
“Alright, alright, we’re leaving,” said the Doctor, eerily calm. He took the hand Rose hadn’t pricked and led her away from the tent.
“Are you feeling okay?” he said urgently, “Any nausea, dizziness, headache—?”
“Not anymore,” murmured Rose, “Bit of a headache, I guess…”
“Four months…” pondered the Doctor, “Four months of what? Four months left? Was it injecting you with something? No, it was absorbing something….absorbing what?”
“Blood?” she guessed vaguely. Her headache was subsiding, the pain replaced by fuzziness.
The Doctor stopped in the middle of the crowd to fix her with a piercing stare. “Rose, are you alright?”
“No, you’re not,” he said sharply, gripping her hand tighter. “Tell me the truth.” He continued pulling her through the crowd back to the TARDIS.
“Well my head’s sort of…fuzzy,” Rose decided, “Like it’s not real, bit of a dream….” She blinked. “Is it?”
“No,” the Doctor stated shortly, pushing her faster, “Fuzzy? Didn’t Jack say his head felt fuzzy earlier?” Frantically, he gave up all sense of politeness and elbowed protesting Alorians out of his way. “But he didn’t have contact with one of those thorns…What is that from?”
“Jack….we should go get him,” she commented airily. Light as a feather, she was. She felt like she wasn’t walking, but floating, and the Doctor was towing her along.
“TARDIS first. Hold on Rose, just a bit further…”
Elbowing the last Alorian out of his way, the Doctor whirled around the corner, only to stop dead in his tracks. Rose was forgotten for a moment as he stared at the spot where his ship, his magnificent, beautiful ship, had stood not half an hour ago.
The TARDIS was gone.