"Alonso of Sto," the strained voice on the comm said, "this is insane. Really, really insane. It takes three people to run the asterisphere safely at the best of times, and you're on course for the Great Whorl. If you continue, you will die. Please, come back, and we'll find some way to help you—"
I turned the comm off. Zie—it was the Ierekan traffic controller—wasn't telling me anything I didn't already know. I'm an excellent pilot, but this was an unfamiliar machine. This was mad.
I didn't care.
Below me—above me, whatever—through the thick and specially shielded dome of the asterisphere, I could see Asharrad. It didn't matter whether I was falling into it or whether it was hanging over me; it loomed regardless. I remembered the orientation tour we'd got when we first arrived on Elekar Science Station. Throughout their history, the Ierekans had named Asharrad after some evil, or at least intensely dangerous, mythological figure. Elekar was probably the nicest of the lot, a temperamental fire god. The Ierekans said it was probably because approaching Asharrad does things to Iereka's weather, turning a normal frozen aphelion into a false spring and waking up hungry carnivores. I thought it might be the false-star's color, a deep red glow, darker than blood. When they discovered life in Asharrad's atmosphere—
Well. Commotion doesn't begin to cover it.
Before yesterday, I'd more or less dismissed the Ierekan fundamentalists. I'd travelled; I knew that all species have groups like that, people terrified that aliens or cyborgs or sapient robots are going to destroy everything they hold dear, and when you cut out which group they're ranting about, they start to sound the same. The Ierekan conservatives distrusted aliens because most of us have a gender all of the time, and can they be quite sure we're not insatiable sex fiends out to seduce their youth and mold them to our perverse lifestyle? They weren't happy about Elekar Station because it was built to study life on Asharrad, and surely anything living on a brown dwarf named after the Progenitor of Evil was better left un-poked-at. There were protests, there were serious-looking spokespeople, there were forums on the Grid. But I thought that was as far as it went.
I was wrong. And that was, indirectly, the reason why I was diving straight into Asharrad, into temperatures and pressures half that of a sun's chromosphere.
There was already a faint vibration. Wisps of atmosphere on the hull.
Yesterday, I was in the Elekar Station clinic, an emergency volunteer, spraying analgesic on burns.
Yesterday, the fanatics had finally made good their threats and set off a bomb on Elekar Station. That would have been bad enough; the hull was breached, the section dividers slammed down, condemning anyone in an affected area to death if they couldn't seal the holes or get to the emergency suits. But Elekar Station was a multi-species endeavor, evenly divided between the Ierekan section—oxygen breathers—and the Corloni section, which was for methane-breathers.
The bomb had weakened the whole structure, causing leaks up and down the length of the station. Methane and oxygen, mixing. All it needed was exactly the wrong proportions and a spark.
Which happened. And there were casualties. I was working on one of the station engineers when we all felt the second blast, deeper and more powerful than a methane explosion. It was all I could do to keep zir in the medbay.
A few minutes later, one of the emergency coordinators paged me on the station comms. My stomach had already sunk to the floor by the time I made it into the privacy booth.
The coordinator gave me the news quietly. A second bomb—set in the docking bay to keep ships from fleeing—had gone off. The team that had been attempting to disarm it was unhurt, and that despite how gravely the docking bay itself had been sabotaged. Because an alien, a nominal civilian called Jack Harkness, had volunteered to vent the docking bay and toss the bomb into space by hand, despite not even having a breathing mask to his name—
I told the coordinator that I needed his body back. Very important to our religion, having the body. (Completely untrue, right down to the implication that we shared a culture. Jack wasn't Stoish.)
Zie was sorry, the coordinator told me, deeply sorry. But the bomb had exploded during the venting process. It was unclear whether it had been designed to go off in response to pressure loss or whether it had been on a simple timer, but either way, the blast must have thrown the corpse right out the bay doors. For all that we were different, the coordinator assured me, Ierekans had similar sentiments about their dead—zie could connect me with a funerary facsimile service, so that I would at least have a semblance of a body to perform my rites upon—
I told zir I was going after the corpse.
That, I was informed, was unfortunately quite impossible. Some of the ships in the docking bay might be repairable, but repairable was a far cry from flight-ready. The only usable craft on Elekar Station were the asterispheres, and their engineers were still occupied with the crisis. Besides, security had already put the station in lockdown, to prevent the terrorists from escaping—
Arguing with the coordinator didn't get me anywhere. Shouting, and then begging, didn't get me anywhere.
I did, however, manage to run some calculations on the station's traffic computer. And they showed the worst possible scenario. The majority of the debris from the second explosion was falling in a long arc, right down into Asharrad.
So I stole an asterisphere.
Asterispheres are built to study the life forms in Asharrad's atmosphere. They're tough. They're also fairly cramped. The cockpit is designed to hold four people—a pilot, two engineers and a scientist—but I felt that it would be more comfortable for only two.
It certainly wasn't designed for one man to fly. I spent some time lunging between stations. Before the atmosphere got dangerous, I had to program the science station to scan automatically for oxygen-breathing life—something it was not designed for—and alert me if it caught the slightest trace.
Even if my calculations were exactly right and Jack was within range, he would only be alive for microseconds at a time. Just because Asharrad is a failed star, that doesn't mean it's cool. In the Great Whorl, where the debris had impacted, it was more than hot enough to melt glass.
I'm a very good pilot. But I was uncomfortably aware that I might only be good because my definition of emergency is so far divergent from everyone else's. If there isn't sabotage and killer robots on top of the piloting problem, it isn't an emergency, it's a nuisance. Which was a very good attitude to have when you travel with Jack Harkness, but I wasn't sure it was enough to get me through this.
There was a horrible amount of waiting involved. Asharrad is huge; you could drop three Stos into the Great Whorl alone and still have room for a couple of large asteroids. It takes a while to get into its atmosphere. All of the time with that sinister dying-ember light rising up from beneath you.
The three most critical systems were propulsion, gravity compensation, and heat transfer. I could hear all of them humming at different pitches, a dissonance that got into my skull and made it ache. But a quick check of the relevant engineering readouts proved that they were all functioning within spec, for now. I corrected the asterisphere's pitch, and checked the motion compensators, and almost missed seeing the line of veils passing on the starboard side.
I'd absorbed quite a bit of information on Asharradan life, even though we'd only been here a little while. Nobody's quite sure if a line of veils is more like a grove or a flock. They certainly don't fall within normal biological definitions. They feed—somehow—off Asharrad's magnetic field. They're always found in single file, but that has more to do with magnetism than with any volition on their part. They look like tattered translucent scarves, a brighter orange-yellow than the normal Asharradan atmosphere. Imagine being trapped in a giant garnet and seeing fluttering scraps of gold.
There's an extraordinary amount that the Ierekan scientists don't know about them. How they reproduce, for instance. Studying Asharradan life is as much physics as biology; listen in on a conversation and you'll hear words like magnetic knots and electrofluidic dynamics being tossed about, as well as the ever-popular damnifIknow. But they have discovered that veils are the bottom of the food chain. There are huge, amoeba-like life-forms which graze on the veils as if they were grass. There are smaller, quicker, serpentine creatures which hunt the "amoebas," or perhaps herd them. And there are more, I'd been told, a whole barely-tangible ecosystem down here, but the serpentine forms were what caught my imagination. Dragons. Flame dragons of Asharrad.
If it had been any less of an emergency, I would have hoped I would get to see some.
The sensors went off with a loud, piercing whistle just as the motion compensators didn't quite compensate and the wind tossed the asterisphere a good thousand feet, throwing me out of my chair. I didn't bother to look at the engineering station. If the motion compensators had failed, I would have broken every bone I possessed. This was just normal turbulence.
I retrieved the data. A brief flash of carbon-based life, further towards the center of the Whorl.
Well, of course it was.
I angled the asterisphere crosswind. There's no way to cut directly across—you'd be shredded if you tried to fight Asharrad's winds—but luckily, anything else caught in the Great Whorl would be tossed around at approximately the same speeds I was.
Including my lover's unkillable body.
Jack didn't tell me about his unique nature. He would happily joke about being psychic, or toss off remarks about his youth being a thousand years gone with the certainty that everyone would think he was making fun of himself. But the important thing, the really life-changing element—I had to find that out myself.
The Gray Lady was a derelict luxury liner orbiting in the far reaches of the Talil system, and it had never been salvaged. There were all sorts of stories as to why not, just as there were all sorts of stories about what happened to make the grand old ship a derelict. It was well-established that the captain had had some sort of psychotic break and the lifeboats had been sabotaged, but the stories didn't leave it there. Life forms, they whispered. Old, cold, hungry things that came in from the dark.
Spacer legends. I'd say that they're as old as star travel, but I suspect they're even older. Before we ever looked beyond our atmospheres, there were stories about things lurking in the darkest forests, or the seas. Of course, Stoish have a reputation for superstition. It all comes down to not evolving on Sto, I think. There are all sorts of unanswered questions about our very existence, and people fill in those gaps with tall tales. What else is there?
By myself, I wouldn't have worked with the wreck divers for love nor money. But I was with Jack. You get into all sorts of odd situations when you're travelling with Jack—and as he pointed out, they were going to go anyway, and probably get killed, and didn't we have a sort of duty to prevent that if we were in the neighborhood? So I was the pilot, and Jack was learning wreck-diving, and we were all going after the big prize.
The first dive went beautifully. It was after the team got back to the Golden Lode and took off their helmets—after they'd breathed in the dust from the derelict—that things went wrong.
The captain was sweating. I thought he might be feverish. But whatever it was, it had got into his brain somehow, because he was babbling about alien spiders in the walls, things that had color without color, things that were coming for him. Jack was talking soothingly to him, but it wasn't working. "I know you," he told him, "I know what you really are, I can see you under the skin, wriggle wriggle wriggle, and you won't take me. You won't get to me. You're not a person, you're fake, stop talking like a person, I don't like it—"
Jack spread his hands, conciliatory, and the captain shot him. With a laser carbine.
It sliced him almost in half. He never had a chance.
I remember that it felt like a punch, that it took a long moment even to resolve the sensation into heartbreak. It couldn't be. It couldn't be, Jack couldn't be dead, it wasn't fair—the person who had shown me just how enormous and terrifying and thrilling the universe was, reduced to meat on the floor—
And then the captain closed with me, waving the carbine under my nose, crooning things about worms and spider larvae, and how they'd never take him alive. "Parasites," he told me, as the gun nearly touched my lips. "All the parasites. I can see the worms in your eyes, they flash like runway lights, they're saying, 'Come down! Come down and eat me!' But I won't let them. They won't hollow me out, no . . ." And on, and on. I stayed as still as I could; movement had got Jack killed. If I could get out of this, if I could get to the comms, I could at least tell a rescue ship what was going on. But I had to be cool, I had to be calm, I had to be in control and live through this even though there was part of me that couldn't see the point anymore, not with Jack dead—
The captain told the spiders in the walls to stop sneaking up on him, and raised the gun to fire at the ceiling. And that was when Jack clubbed him over the head.
That was also when I lost every single trace of calm I'd ever had. Because now I was hallucinating too, wasn't I? And I had no way to tell, from within the madness, whether it was Jack's death or his inexplicable life that was the dream—
Except that this thing seemed to produce paranoia. And paranoid hallucinations wouldn't be in the habit of speaking calmly and soothingly to you, even as they looked at you like your fear meant the loss of their best friend.
That was exceptionally well-reasoned for a madman. Was I sure I was hallucinating?
So I just—accepted it. Helped Jack (alive how?!) drag the unconscious captain to the medbay. Sat still while he injected both of us with enough antibiotics to choke a beak-lizard. Listened to him as he explained that he'd heard of this illness before, that it was treatable; it was mainly dangerous because of the obscenely fast onset time and the fact that violent paranoia was the first symptom to manifest if you missed the initial mild itching (and everyone but dyed-in-the-wool hypochondriacs inevitably did). The itching, incidentally, was what made most hominids focus either on parasites or dirt . . .
"I saw you die." I swallowed. "I saw you die. Was that a hallucination?"
He breathed out. "No."
"Simple. I can't die. Not permanently." He gave me a rather poor imitation of his usual blazing smile. "A long time ago, at least on my personal timeline, the laws of physics got a little footnote. 'Jack Harkness is alive.' Water will flow uphill to make it happen."
"That's not possible."
"I know. I've seen a lot of impossible things."
"So you can't die at all? That doesn't make sense. What if you were vaporized? Or atomized?"
"I'd coalesce." Jack smiled at my expression. "Might take a while, but it'd happen. And yeah, all the evidence suggests I really can't die at all, but I can't say I've tried everything yet. I've wondered—I think I might be able to off myself by diving into a black hole. Past the event horizon, you aren't really in this universe, after all; the rules are different. Of course, it takes forever to get there, from everyone else's perspective—I don't feel like trying it any time soon, though. For one thing, I've still got reasons to stick around, and for another—well, where would I be if it failed?"
There was a short pause as we both decided not to think about that.
"Listen, would you mind not telling anyone? I'm okay with my friends knowing it—you always find out anyway—but I know from personal experience, some people can think of some interesting uses for a man who can't die. And by 'interesting,' I don't mean the fun kind of kink."
"Of course I won't!" Common decency says that you don't out cyborgs against their will, not unless it's a medical emergency; the same principle had to apply here. "Besides, it's all a bit unbelievable unless you've seen it. But it makes me feel a little better, tracking down the dive team and medicating them. Everyone on this boat has a gun, you know?"
"Dibs on being the distraction," Jack said cheerily.
Well, that only made sense, didn't it? It was no different from working with someone who had natural armor. I could deal with this. It was bizarre, it was unimaginably strange, but in the end, it was just Jack.
Tracking Jack's vaporizing and reforming body was like navigating through a swamp, at midnight, without a single flame to light the way, based on a flash of light that only happened once every twenty minutes.
The turbulence became worse the further in I went, which seemed only natural. I spotted some odd ring-shaped Asharrad-life; I wasn't sure if anyone had ever documented them before. There was something hunting them—I caught a split-second bolt of gold light, out of the corner of my eye—but I couldn't see what. I had to fly this thing, after all, and it was getting more difficult.
I wondered if there was an entirely different ecosystem inside the Great Whorl. It would make sense, wouldn't it? The Whorl was bigger than Sto. If I got out—when I got out, I told myself—I would have a hell of a story to tell.
To Jack. Because any other option wasn't worth imagining.
The science console whistled again, and I looked at the readouts for an instant before the turbulence made me grab for the flight controls with both hands. Down. Far below where I was. Not at all a good thing.
By the next time the science console alerted me, the turbulence was far too heavy for me to let go of the flight controls, even for an instant. I felt like screaming in frustration. So close—so damn close to Jack—and I couldn't even control this glorified canoe well enough to look for him.
The turbulence tossed the sphere upside down, then end over end. I kept my eyes on the instruments. You think you can feel which way is up, a spaceplane instructor had told me long ago. You can't. Trust me on this. And if you lose your vertical, you are dead.
I was extremely grateful I had a nerve chip to prevent motion sickness. Because if I didn't, I had a feeling I would have decorated the floor. Or, the way the asterisphere was gyrating, the dome. I wrestled with the joystick and brought the craft back under control.
The motion compensators were making a high-pitched whine.
And then, without any fanfare at all, the computer gave me my death sentence. "Warning," one of the engineering stations said in a level Ierekan voice. "Heat transfer at sixty-three percent. Exit atmosphere immediately." Which I couldn't do; it would take me at least an hour of climbing, at full throttle. "Heat transfer at fifty-nine percent. Exit atmos—heat transfer at fifty-four percent. Heat transfer at—"
Something had broken. Was the asterisphere even intended to go this low? I was deep in the troposphere; the pressure outside would smash a full can of liquid as if a giant had stepped on it. And the heat transfer systems were failing fast, a new and more ominous number every second. I locked the controls on auto and lunged for the engineering station, but I knew it wouldn't do any good—knew it even before the asterisphere went into another spin and tossed me right into the science console. If I flew the thing, I would roast; if I tried to fix the heat transfer, I would be at the mercy of the winds. And they didn't have any.
This was it, then.
"Oh, Vot," I whispered. I wasn't sure if I was praying for myself or for Jack, sentenced to burn forever, with nobody ever knowing. I had tried, I had tried so hard—it wasn't fair—
And that was when the asterisphere stabilized. Not just a little bit. Perfectly, as if it were cruising through empty space.
I didn't bother to question my good fortune. I just went for the engineering console and pressed buttons frantically, bringing up the schematic of the heat transfer system. As I had thought, the port sink was gone—I could cut it off, reroute all the extra energy through the starboard one, but it would burn out under the strain in minutes—
Which might be all I needed. According to the altimeter, the asterisphere was rising. Straight up. Fast.
This wasn't just good fortune. This was something impossible. And just a tiny bit spooky.
I rerouted to the starboard heat sink and moved back to the piloting station. Whatever I was caught in—some sort of extreme updraft? That didn't make a bit of sense, but it was all I had. Could I maneuver within it, or—
I tried nudging the asterisphere sideways, and the radio switched itself on. "Stop that."
I snatched my hands away. The impossibility was talking to me.
What was more, it sounded familiar, although I couldn't place it. "Er," I said. "Hello?"
"Hallo!" The voice on the comm sounded ludicrously cheerful and spoke quite fast. It also sounded like it was in the same room as I was. No static interference. And in the atmosphere of Asharrad, that was impossible too. Asharrad puts out even more radio noise than a gas giant. "That," the voice went on, "is a very, very clever little ship. Cooling lasers! I mean, that's brilliant. That's really brilliant. Most species would wait until they could use hyperspace shunts, but not you. You just said, 'I know what could solve this problem: more lasers!' Have you ever met homo sapiens? Because you'd get along beautifully, you really would. You do realize your left-hand laser isn't firing?"
He thought I was Ierekan. Well, that was logical enough; I was in an Ierekan ship. "Yes, I got that," I managed. "Thank you, sir. I—"
"Oh, not sir. I hate being a sir. Anyway, that'll take you a good eight hours in drydock," the voice went on blithely. "Or forty-five minutes of tinkering by someone exceptionally clever, but unfortunately I have things to do. Urgent things. Wellll, one urgent thing, but it's a big one. If I tow you all the way past the stratosphere—are you calling it the stratosphere or the corona? If I tow you into space, can you make it back to your research base?"
"You have a ship that can dive into Asharrad," I managed. I was being towed. Exactly how he was keeping the Great Whorl from ripping me apart—well, it was obviously happening, so I should just accept that it was possible and move on.
There was a short silence, and when the stranger spoke again, the good cheer was gone. "I have a ship," he said, "that could fly into a Wolf-Rayet star and come out unsinged, and that's all you need to know about that." Unspoken, but hanging in the air all the same: try to take the technology by force, and I will make you sorry.
I believed him.
"From the looks of it," he went on, more lightly, "your bathysphere can maneuver outside the atmosphere. If—"
"No, wait! Listen, there's a person—I realize this sounds insane, but there's a person down there, in Asharrad's atmosphere, and he's not dead. Or rather, he is, but he's can't stay that way—I mean physically can't, not shouldn't. And he's in trouble, and he's burning. Please, I need your help."
The voice paused. "You're Jack Harkness's companion," he said finally.
There was another silence, long enough that I was tempted to ask, are you still there? And then there was a noise. Something a little bit like an armorine's bellow, but cycling in a way that made me think of old machinery. One pulse of the sound, a second, a third—
There was a breeze. My ears popped.
And then, before I had time to panic about hull breaches, there was a blue door. A blue door in a booth-like structure that was casually interpenetrating the hull of the asterisphere, as if it could materialize inside other ships any time it felt like.
There was a brief pause, during which I just stared at the thing, and then the door opened. A man stuck his head out.
And—as if the day hadn't been surreal enough before—I knew him. He'd helped me, or I'd helped him, keep a starliner with a fusion torch from crashing into an inhabited, lifebearing planet. I didn't know where he'd come from or where he went afterwards, but he'd saved more lives than I could imagine. He called himself the Doctor; I didn't think he had another name. And now his face was lighting up at the sight of me. "Alonso! Alonso Frame, wasn't it?"
"Well, come on, then. Alons-y, Alonso!"
I had no idea what that meant, but he'd said it last time, too. I got up from the pilot station and went in the blue door, and realized that I hadn't even begun to experience impossible.
The Doctor dashed around his ship's console like a maniac, twisting knobs and punching buttons. I wondered how many people were normally needed to pilot this ship, whatever it was. I wondered where it had come from.
I wondered how in the name of everything it could be bigger inside than out.
"So," the Doctor said, "you're with Jack! That's marvelous, it really is, but it strains coincidence to the breaking point, and believe me, I've seen some unlikely coincidences. How did the two of you meet up? You didn't crash in Wales and get noticed, did you?"
I blinked at him. "You introduced us! Sort of. You gave Jack a note, in a bar—he said it was the most important piece of paper of his life—" Or, at least, that was what he said after giving me three different unlikely stories as to how he knew my name.
"Really? What did it say?"
"I don't know, exactly," I admitted. "I just know how he interpreted it. To him, it meant, 'Try to forgive yourself and go be Jack Harkness, because he's a worthwhile person to be.'" Not that I know exactly what Jack had to forgive himself for. He dreams about it, I think, but he doesn't talk about it. "He was—in bad shape, before. You really don't remember?"
He flipped three switches. "Not," he told me firmly, "because my memory is bad. A bit overcrowded, sometimes, but accurate all the same. No, I think I'm out of order again. I lead a very complicated life; I sometimes end up back-to-front. The worst time was when I tried to attend a wedding and was told I was supposed to be the bride, although, to be fair, there were robot duplicates mixed up in that. And a badger. Was I right?"
"The note. Pushing the two of you together. Was I right?"
"Yes. He needed me." There are such ancient shadows in Jack's eyes, but when we're basking in the afterglow, or doing stupid tourist stuff on Ringview Station, or just generally behaving like idiots in love, those shadows are almost gone. "And I needed him. I've never really known—I mean, he lives harder than anyone I've ever met. It's all just a little more intense, when he's around. And me, I've dreamed of the stars my entire life, but—going through training, scrambling to get any position available, scrambling again to get a berth after everyone decided the name Titanic was the worst possible luck—with all of that day-to-day stuff, I almost forgot. The point was to see the stars. And with Jack, I—I do. I see stars, not just numbers and dots on a chart."
"Brilliant!" He grinned. "When I see your younger self, I'll remember to introduce you."
He sounded like he was talking about time travel.
To be fair, Jack sometimes sounded like he was talking about time travel, too. Stoish physics says that it might be possible but definitely isn't practical. Stoish physics also says that small blue booths can't have huge rooms inside them, so what did they know? "Is that how you knew Jack was in trouble?" I wondered aloud. "Because one of us left a message for you in the future?"
"No, but that's good. That's very good! Most people don't see the possibilities right away. No, Jack—Jack is a fact. Solider than collapsed matter. He's the single there-est thing you'll ever encounter, which means that when he isn't there—when, for instance, he's scattered throughout fifteen cubic kilometers of flaming hurricane—the laws of nature get just a little tetchy. If you're very, very clever, and believe me, I'm very, very clever, that tetchiness is measurable, and because I have some pride, I'm not going to call the instrument I invented a tetchiometer. Soooo, I wrote a subroutine for the TARDIS to let me know if Jack ever gets caught in a death-revival loop, and it worked, and here I am!" Grin.
"You'll save Jack? Whenever he falls into something like this?"
The grin faded. "No," the Doctor said. "Not necessarily. There are a lot of things that could go wrong. The tetchiometer might malfunction. I might be dead. I might not be me enough to care." He turned back towards the console. "There is a reason," he said over his shoulder, "why I never told Jack I was writing that subroutine, and the reason is that the more careless he isn't, the happier both of us will be. I know you can't stop him from flinging himself into trouble. But, Alonso—try to keep him from running towards destruction."
"I'll do my best," I promised.
"Good!" And just like that, he was happy again. Or apparently happy; I wasn't sure I could tell the difference. I wasn't always certain with Jack, after all, and the Doctor was at least as much of a mystery.
It didn't take us long to dive back into the Great Whorl. The TARDIS (that was the ship's name, apparently) lurched a bit, but compared to the way the asterisphere had spun, it was nothing. The Doctor tapped the side of a screen, seeming dissatisfied with whatever it was showing him, and then crossed to the doors.
I started out of the jumpseat. Surely he wasn't going to—
He was. He threw the doors open.
Carmine light poured in. But not searing death.
I stared. Then I walked slowly forward, hardly realizing I was doing so. Nothing—nothing I could see, at least—between me and the atmosphere of Asharrad. The clouds, some of them incandescent with their own light, some of them lit from below, as if there were some unimaginable disaster down there—through the asterisphere's thick dome, it all smeared together into undistinguished redness, but that wasn't what it looked like at all. There was as much variation—more variation—than you'd find in any cloud bank on Sto.
And we were within a stone's throw of an Asharradan life-form that looked like a row of rings strung together with tiny filaments of light. The ring-creatures I had seen earlier, I realized—only it was one animal, or plant, or whatever-it-was. I couldn't have seen that from the asterisphere. I could only find out like this.
"Not only stranger than we imagine," the Doctor said softly—it sounded like a quote, "but stranger than we can imagine. Beautiful, aren't they?"
"How?" My voice was a whisper. It took me a couple of tries to make the word come out.
"You didn't think the doors were holding the atmosphere in, did you? They don't even make a proper seal." The Doctor dismissed the problem as inconsequential. "Now! Finding a bit of Jack, that's the first step. Even an atom will do. Because once we have an atom, all the rest will do whatever they have to—ride the turbulence, tunnel, anything—to get back together."
"What's to stop the one atom from tunneling away from us?"
"I'm clever." He was doing something with the console. I couldn't begin to imagine what. "I'm going to double the envelope and make the outer one selectively permeable, one-way only. We'll need a buffer zone, a place to keep Jack as he coalesces, because at the moment, his temperature is dangerous to us. This isn't going to be pretty—" He stopped talking for a moment and flipped a switch up and down, repeatedly.
"Is something wrong?"
He ran his hands through his hair, which went a long way toward explaining why it looked like that. "Aaagh—it's not—" More switches. "No, no, no, no, no. I need that secondary envelope. Why aren't you—"
And then he stopped. Went still.
In the ruby light from the door, he looked, suddenly, quite alien. And old. And tired. "Can you hear me?" he asked quietly.
I opened my mouth, then closed it without saying anything. He wasn't talking to me.
"I know you're frightened. He frightens me, too. But this is Jack." His voice was low, coaxing. "You don't even have to remember, not the way I do. The way you exist, you're there, right now. Listening to him through me. Listening to him flirt with you, through me. He keeps calling you 'gorgeous,' and I keep growling at him—can you hear that? And then he'll accuse me of being jealous and give me that smile, because somehow they both knew—somehow, they always knew—that "oi, stop that' meant, 'how could I possibly be this lucky?'"
He had his hand on the console, but he wasn't even touching the controls. It was more like someone putting a hand on their best friend's shoulder.
"And you liked him too. I know you did. I could feel it. However much he's changed—whatever he's become—it's still him. At the end of the Year, he was the one who freed you. He didn't hurt you. He never could. Even if we didn't owe him more than we could possibly repay, you and me both, we can never let Jack suffer."
I was, I realized, holding my breath.
"I know we ran." His voice was barely a murmur. "After the Bad Wolf, we both ran away from him. You, because he looked so wrong, because he's at the middle of a twist in the universe more unnatural than a four-sided triangle, and maybe, just maybe, because you were still recovering from something that no TARDIS should be able to do. And he frightened me too, all the way down to the bone, but that wasn't why I agreed with you. I ran because I wasn't sure what sort of man I was about to become. Because I know my duty, I know that by all the rules that ever were, I should put an end to the anomaly—or failing that, lock it away until Time itself dissolves—and I couldn't face that. I never want to do that. I never want to become a person who could do that. Because it's Jack, don't you see? It's Jack."
The last words were a whisper.
The Doctor was silent for a moment, waiting, and then closed his eyes and sighed. I felt like I had spied on someone crying on their lover's shoulder, and turned hastily back towards the door. "Alonso," the Doctor said, sounding exhausted, "I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. I'm going to have to do this without the TARDIS, and I don't know if—"
"Doctor? What's that?"
It was a tiny, brilliant spark hanging unnaturally still, only centimeters from the door.
The Doctor checked the scanner, thumping it hard in his urgency. "Carbon," he said. "Carbon and hydrogen and oxygen. Some nitrogen and a touch of sulfur, arranging themselves into molecules that really shouldn't exist at all, not at these temperatures. There's almost a milligram there already and it's growing! We have," the grin was so wide I could hear it in his voice without turning around, "just a smidge of premium-grade Harkness, right where we want it. Excellent! Molto bene!" And then, so softly I could barely hear him, he added, "Thank you."
When the Doctor said it wasn't going to be pretty, he was understating it.
It took, I think, almost an hour for the molecules to swirl into the buffer zone between "envelopes" (whatever those were). For quite a lot of the time, the two of us just stood there and watched. Every now and then, the Doctor would dart around the console and do arcane things with it. We were, he told me conversationally, following the storm's convection, because all those Harkness atoms were going the same way. He seemed to take it for granted that the TARDIS could stop dead in the middle of the Whorl without damaging itself, and considering all its other impossibilities, I wasn't going to argue.
At one point, I saw a dragon floating casually above a flock of ring-creatures. It looked like a snake's skeleton made of gold and amber, and its motion was more liquid than any carbon-based life form.
The Doctor filled up some of the silence with chatter. He talked about how he'd been to Iereka before, how he'd celebrated Aphelion Night in an Ierekan warmhall. From there, he switched the subject to the Viking meadhalls on Earth—one of his favorite planets—where commoners and warlords slept in the same room, because warmth was more important than rank. For all the Vikings' barbarism, he said, he'd always liked that bit. He didn't say a word about travelling with Jack.
Jack was almost complete, now. Limbs, fingers, soft tissues being filled in as I watched. He was hanging in an unnatural position, a bit splayed, and I remembered hearing that Earth allegedly had a custom of killing supposed divine avatars by hanging them like that. I wondered if it was true. The tourist info on the Titanic had been heavily slanted toward sensationalism, all blood and shock and bizarre customs, and I wasn't sure how much of it to believe. The bit about the country where they burnt thousands of guys every year as part of a grim and gruesome celebration of autumn—I didn't buy that one. I don't think a society could keep that up for long. You'd lose men faster than they were being born.
The last of Jack's skin came together in a flash. He convulsed, chest heaving for air. And then the other laws of the universe kicked in, the ones that said that at two thousand degrees, human blood flashes instantly to superheated steam, and he—he—
It is almost certainly extremely rude to lose your breakfast in a ship that (at least from the way the Doctor treated her) is alive and sapient. But that's exactly what I did.
A moment later, I felt the Doctor's hand on my back, gently. "Sorry," I choked, as soon as I could talk. "Sorry. I—I just—"
"I know. I know. It's all right, Alonso." He rubbed my back in a small circle. "This will be over soon. Keep telling yourself that. This will be over soon."
"At least—" I gulped. "At least it was—quick. I don't think he had any time to feel it. Right? I mean, do you think he felt . . ."
If I hadn't been used to Jack's evasions, I doubt I would have caught the very slight pause before the Doctor spoke. "Of course not. No time for the pain to register." He took his hand off me and moved back to the console. "Well, we know we have enough of him to revive. I'm going to narrow that secondary envelope to hold just Jack and bring it inside. We still won't be able to touch him, not for a while, but we can get back into space. Best place to be, space, when you have delicate work to do. Although I wouldn't advise doing it in Earth orbit, even if you do park high enough to avoid the orbital detritus. You never know when a gigantic ship is going to ruin your day. Honestly, I think that planet is just a bit jinxed, and I say that as a person who doesn't believe in jinxes . . ."
I tuned him out for a second. Jack—he was already reforming—was floating in through the doors. There was something horrifically uncanny about it—unalive but upright, movement more unnatural than a string puppet.
The Doctor nodded. "Alonso, shut the doors, would you?"
Once again, the TARDIS lurched as it maneuvered. Jack never moved.
By the time I thought to turn around and see how much of a mess I'd made on the floor, there wasn't a trace of it. Spotless. As if I'd never thrown up at all.
"Can't we—I don't know, spray him with a fire extinguisher or something? I mean, you made the envelope so that Jack's atoms could get in but not out; couldn't you, I don't know, make it selectively permeable to foam—"
"We could," the Doctor said, "but it wouldn't—wait. Yes, that's a good idea. A very good idea, in fact. A very, very good idea—but there's a catch." He produced something from under the counter. Clearly a fire extinguisher, although it didn't look much like the standard Stoish ones. It was mauve rather than black and orange, to start with, and it had a lot of warning labels. Some of which I didn't understand. Do not discharge towards living entities, that was clear enough, but what did it mean, Do not tamper with temperature lock?
For a split second, I thought that the lettering on the fire extinguisher was completely alien, no script I'd ever seen or heard of. But, no, there it was, as comprehensible as could be.
"This," the Doctor told me, "is liquid nitrogen. Sort of a backup in case the TARDIS's fire-suppression systems fail. It'd chill Jack's surface very nicely, if we sprayed it on him right now, but his innards are a worse problem. Which means that to get the best possible cooling effect, we need to spray it in when he's—not intact."
I had to swallow at the mental image, but said, "I'll do it."
The Doctor gave me the extinguisher and meddled with some levers, presumably making it so that the liquid nitrogen could get in. I picked it up, and watched Jack reassemble, and waited.
Compared to the first time, it didn't take long. We already had everything in one place, I guess. And Jack twitched, and came to life, and died horrifically, and I shot liquid nitrogen into the bubble the Doctor had created for him, playing the spray back and forth, trying to get as much of him as I could. It still made me want to throw up, but at least I had something I could do for him.
It felt like it took hours, hours of revival and horrifying death, for Jack to cool down enough that the Doctor let him out of the envelope. I doubt it was really that long, though. "He's still too hot to survive," the Doctor told me quietly, "so don't touch him—but it'll help for you to be next to him. Talk to him when he revives. Tell him he's safe. Tell him that this is not forever, that we won't permit it to be forever. Tell him that his friends are here."
So I did. When he revived, I clenched my hands into fists to avoid the urge to take his hand. "Jack. Jack, it's all right, this will be over soon. You're safe, you're among friends—"
The Doctor came back into the control room with something disturbingly gun-shaped. "What's that?" I asked.
"Another fire extinguisher. But only because calling it a freeze ray is false advertising. Earth humans are just a bit obsessed with rays, have you noticed? Cosmic rays in comic books, ray guns—I think it's Röntgen's fault. As if photographing peoples' insides wasn't fascinating enough, there's the bit where they see through clothes. Did you know there was a brief fad for X-ray-proof underwear?"
No, but I could believe it. If Jack was a typical Earth human, they spend quite a bit of time thinking about just one thing. Not that I was complaining.
The fire extinguisher that wasn't a freeze ray really did look like a freeze ray, though. The Doctor did his best not to miss any skin. I thought it was taking slightly longer for the frost crystals to dissolve into steam, which was a good sign.
Then came the part when Jack's innards were down to mere oven temperatures, where he could survive for a short time. And those were the worst deaths, because he had time to scream. "Just ride it out, Jack. This'll be over soon. We've got you, we're taking care of you, you're safe. Don't be afraid, you're safe."
He was reviving about twice a minute now. Then three times a minute. I kept talking, because that was how I could help. When I started repeating myself, I interspersed other topics among you're safe and we've got you. "Only you, Jack, only you would go to these lengths for a good tan." The Doctor smiled at that. "It's okay, Jack. I can barely feel the heat off you now. That means you're almost there. You're almost there, Jack, hold onto that. I don't know, you never told me whether you experience anything while you're dead, but if you do—if you can think at all—remember this. We're here. We'd never abandon you."
That prompted something very close to a wince from the Doctor, and I remembered that he'd mentioned running away from Jack. "Just two minutes, now," he said. "Two minutes, and you'll be alive for good."
"Thank you," I said. The words weren't enough; I owed him more than I could ever repay. But I tried to put everything into them, all the same. "Thank you. For—all of this."
The Doctor made a dismissive noise. "Aah, I wouldn't let him get trapped like that. He still owes me a drink."
There was self-deprecation and then there was outright lying, and I thought that remark fell into the latter category. We were both pretending I hadn't heard him talking to the TARDIS, but even without that, it would have been obvious. The Doctor cared about Jack. He might flinch a little every time Jack revived; I suspected that it actually put him in pain, briefly, although I couldn't begin to say why or how. But if there was pain, he flatly refused to let it be the boss of him. Jack was more important.
Jack's revivals were coming so close together that I just talked nonstop.
Then he jerked, and gulped air, and let out a shaky breath. Inhaled, and exhaled, without writhing or screaming.
"It's over," the Doctor said quietly. "He's back."
I closed my eyes and took his hand. The Doctor knelt on the other side of him.
Jack's eyes opened. "'Lonso," he slurred. "Shouldn't've. Too risky."
"He had help," the Doctor said.
Jack looked at him, blinking a bit as if to make blurriness go away. Then he smiled, a tired smile, but filled with more pure relief than I'd ever seen. "Hi, Doc."
The Doctor's answering smile practically lit up the control room. "Stop that."