Things had been simple for Ian Chesterton ever since he and fellow Coal Hill School teacher Barbara Wright had left the Doctor and Vicki in the Dalek time machine. Aside from the initial fiasco of explaining why they’d been gone for two years – because they’d landed in 1965 instead of 1963 – and that, no, they definitely weren’t Russian spies, and they hadn’t kidnapped former student Susan Foreman, it had been calm. It had been nice. He and Barbara managed to snag new teaching positions, at a different high school. Their days had been full of science, and history, and paperwork, and rowdy teenagers, and meetings, and life. Pay the bills, wash the clothes, go to the grocery store. It was the strangest thing, after constant running for your life from new monsters, returning each time to bedrooms in a machine that always had food and clothes, laid out clean each day like magic on their beds; like that strange bigger-on-the-inside, not-really-a-police-box machine looked out for her passengers. For all he knew, she did.
Ian and Barbara spent more time together outside of school than they had before they’d met the Doctor. If there was one thing he’d thank the old man for, if he ever somehow saw him again, it would be that.
He and Barbara were kindred spirits now. Even though they made new friends, met new people, they were still the only ones who could truly understand each other. They oft sat on a slow Friday night in Ian’s flat, watching the television or eating dinner, and they would muse, and they would wonder. They wondered about what had become of the Doctor, how was Susan getting along, someday far, far into the future, with that David boy. Was Vicki still traveling with the Doctor? They both agreed that they hoped she was. She seemed good for the old man, who’d been visibly troubled by his granddaughter’s leaving (even if it was his own doing). They wondered if, somehow, somehow, that Steven chap could’ve survived. Of course, it was impossible that he’d made it out of that building. They wondered if, in his last moments, he thought it worth it to have gone back in for the sake of that stuffed panda bear called Hi-Fi.
And they wondered about the adversaries they’d faced. They wondered if the Daleks were still around, if they would go on to attempt to terrorize worlds again. They wondered about the Sensorites, if they were still doing their best to have a more fair system. They wondered if the peace-loving Menoptra were still doing alright. From time to time, they even wondered if the tribe of Gum had ever learned more about compassion. If they’d mastered fire and survived that winter. And they did their absolute best not to ponder that all of these things that had happened recently to them were either so far in the past that they were gone, or so far in the future that Barbara and Ian would – could – never live to see them happen, and if that made their worries illogical. Surely, the Doctor would have chuckled and smirked in that benevolent way of his, and gave them some long explanation that he seemed to feel was dumbed down enough for children to understand, about the relativity of time, and time streams, and things and words that would have no meaning to either of the teachers.
Yet, despite the fact that both of them had to admit, if grudgingly at first, that they missed that inquisitive old man, and, much more easily, Susan and Vicki, Ian and Barbara were happy back in England in the twentieth century. They fit in easier, and the only running they had to do was running to the store because they forgot something for a meal. They grew accustomed to the more laidback life. The simple things seemed better than ever. The first time Ian asked Barbara out on a date and she said yes (because there’d been a few instances where he’d asked and she’d rather bluntly said no), it felt like he’d won the lottery. When he got a raise at work, and a subsequently better flat, the world shone brighter. Everything was wonderfully whizzing past Ian Chesterton, in slow motion, and it was wonderful.
So when funny things started happening, he wasn’t prepared for it. People were disappearing, mere children, at an alarming rate. It was slowly becoming a national crisis, with reports steadily leaking into news broadcasts. The suspicions were some sort of kidnapping gang or terrorist activity; paranoia was at an all-time high. Ian supposed he’d known all along that this wasn’t the work of some little-known human network. Judging by the looks Barbara often gave the television said that she knew it as well. And, as Barbara was wont to do, she had to try and make sense of it.
“There’s a pattern, Ian,” she said decisively one day when a report of three more missing teenagers was coming in. “These people that go missing, they’re boys and girls from between twelve and nineteen. Never anyone younger or older. Why go for the youths?” she thought aloud. Ian frowned thoughtfully, thinking as well.
“Now that you mention it, you’re right, Barbara,” he said, and he sounded a little surprised, and a little resigned.
“You don’t think…?” Barbara posed, hesitantly. Ian looked at her squarely.
“I think it must be. It’s not that out there, is it? Earth has been the target of alien attacks before…or it will be, at any rate.”
“Oh, Ian, stop it,” Barbara said, frowning now with irritation at his rambling about when things would happen. She got like this a lot, when Ian tried to think up theories and why’s – she rather liked focusing on the facts, and what they needed to do immediately, and save the thinking for later. “You sound more and more like him every day.”
Ian smiled, intuitively knowing exactly who she meant. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“This is serious!” the woman griped at him, with more frustration and concern than actual anger. Ian sobered quickly.
“Of course, you’re right.”
“Ian, we must do something about this!”
“Ian, we’re quite possibly the only ones on this planet right now that understand what’s really going on here. If the Doctor isn’t here to do something, then it’s up to us.” As usual, Barbara was fiercely passionate, a fire burning in her eyes with what she felt was right, and Ian was reminded once again why he liked her in the first place. He sighed.
“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” he mused.
“I’ve already begun looking into it,” Barbara went on. She pulled a badly crinkled paper out of her purse beside her and opened it so Ian could see it. “See, there had to be something that these children had in common. Something that these aliens could use.”
“That makes sense. There’s no point in picking victims randomly,” Ian agreed, quietly admiring the woman’s efficiency and drive. “So go on. Tell me the magic trait.”
“Imagination, Ian!” Barbara exclaimed excitably. Ian regarded her strangely.
“I’m sorry?” he laughed. Barbara was clearly put off by his doubt.
“I’m serious. See, look,” and now she pulled out newspaper clippings, “there’s Cindy Sutton, fifteen. She took photography at her high school. Michael Grant, thirteen. He made comics with his friends in his free time – and all his friends went missing, too. Emiliana Rose, eighteen. She wrote short stories, mysteries. The list goes on and on, Ian, and each missing child did something creative. Something that took imagination!” Barbara now let her fists, clutching the papers fall to her lap, and looked at Ian. The latter was thoughtful again.
“I have to agree, there is a pattern there,” he said. “But why choose only the students with a knack for creativity? Are the aliens putting on a show?” The last part was only a bit sarcastic.
“I don’t know! That’s what I need your help with,” Barbara implored earnestly. Ian was silent for a long moment. Then he shook his head and looked down.
“Well, we’ll get nowhere sitting around wondering. The only way to get to the bottom of this is to trace it back to its source,” he said finally.
And so, years after leaving their journeys with a strange old alien, and retiring from their chasing after and away from things unthinkable, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright found themselves at it again. They scoured newspapers and recorded television reports. They spent hours tracing the missing persons, whose information had gone viral in hopes of some trace of at least one of them showing up again. Any similarity, any idea where they might’ve gone, or some clue in their disappearance as to who might’ve taken them. Not any alien they’d met, surely. The Doctor had often hinted at there being hundreds upon thousands of planets’ worth of aliens that humans might never see.
It took weeks for them to find a lead. Ian noticed it first. All of these children lived within ten miles of each other, so they’d known that wherever they were taken to, it had to be local. The two adults had been looking into buildings and corporations that could be suspicious in any way, any place that could somehow serve as a base of operations for an alien source to abduct England’s most imaginative children. To do this, they’d taken to scouring through scores of books and records at the local library, and others near it, after school hours. They set up a battery-powered radio to listen for more reports as they worked.
“Barbara! Look, look at this!” Ian exclaimed, holding a paper in his fist. Barbara put down the records she was looking at and stepped her way through the maze of books they’d created to stand next to the man.
“What is it?” she asked eagerly. Ian offered her the paper. She skimmed over it, then looked up at him. The file described a large, abandoned building. The company that’d owned it had gone bankrupt, and no one else had bought it. It was inconspicuous, had been sitting empty for years; no one would think it weird or out of place, or a good place to hide scores of missing children.
“Ian, this could be it,” Barbara said breathlessly. Ian grinned and put his hands on either side of her arms.
“Let’s go,” he said. They rushed to grab their coats and all but ran from the library, leaving their mess behind them, and taking the jackpot file without asking.
What they missed in their rush to leave, was that the radio was still playing. Forgotten, it sat on a low shelf. A loud beeping echoed in the empty room, and an excited broadcaster spoke only for the benefit of the books and the dust.
“I’m just receiving this! A fourteen year old girl named Tasha has just returned home. Tasha has been missing since near the beginning of all this began. We don’t know where she’s – what? I’m getting another report. A boy named Charl – and another! It seems missing children are popping up everywhere now! By some miracle, our children have been returned to us!”
Ian and Barbara spilled out of the cab so eagerly that they almost forgot to pay the very disgruntled driver. They hurried onto the sidewalk and paused for only a moment to confirm that they had the correct building. They looked up at its three-story height, and without a second thought, rushed inside.
Immediately inside was a staircase leading up to the first floor.
“Barbara, you search here, I’ll head upstairs and take a look around,” Ian directed. Barbara nodded dutifully and hurried off. Ian turned back to the stairs, and took them two at a time.
Upstairs was deserted. There were lights on and a suspicious lack of dust, like there had been people here recently – moments ago, even, but there appeared to be no one there now. Ian wandered through the different rooms uncertainly, confused and a little disheartened. Had they been wrong? Then who’d been there?
Downstairs, Barbara was having the same luck. There were obvious signs of recent passage through the building, but there wasn’t a soul in sight. She simply didn’t understand it. Still, ever the persistent one, she studied the place, searched for clues. Something. Anything. This couldn’t all have been in vain, could it?
It was about then that both schoolteachers heard a sound that they’d never forget however long they lived; a sound that was so familiar, was both comforting and dreadful, and hopeful and fear-instilling, all at once. Both dropped their investigations. Both ran.
Ian reached it first. He rushed up the second set of stairs and into the room, moving wildly. He entered the room just in time to watch a battered blue box branded ‘Police Public Call Box’ pulse out of existence, to the rusty melody of wheezing engines and scraping parts, whooshing all around him. He stared in shock. It somehow didn’t process that he was watching the TARDIS leave. That, had he been days, minutes quicker, he would have met the Doctor again. Somewhere in his befuddlement, it occurred to Ian that he’d never seen the TARDIS dematerialize from the outside before.
That was when Barbara showed up, skidding into the room in much the same fashion as her partner had, in fact running into him. She took in the empty room with a blank look, then turned her gaze up to Ian.
“Was that-?” she asked quietly. And Ian laughed. He laughed hard, and put his arms around Barbara, and he shook his head at her happily. Barbara seemed quite surprised at his reaction, even more so when he leaned down and kissed her, which he’d never been brave enough to do before. And he had to break away because he was still laughing. “Ian, what is it?” Barbara asked, now a little concerned. Had they both been mistaken about the sound – had it not really been the TARDIS after all?
“We were too late, Barbara,” Ian said, and he sounded positively thrilled. “We were too late!” And it was okay. Great, even. The Earth still had a guardian angel looking out for it, after all.