Word Count: 2973 for this chapter, around 24,000 for the whole story
Characters: Ace McShane, the Doctor (eleventh) and a number of original characters
Warnings: mental manipulation, some psychological horror (hopefully), vague references to abusive situations, and one or two strong swears plus a number of milder ones
Summary: In an unfamiliar, oppressive landscape, Ace McShane tries to save the people around her and figure out whether she's being played—and by whom.
Author's note: At the moment, I'm just working with the TV-verse canon, because I have a severely limited knowledge of the other ones. Brit-picking by Persiflage, who is extremely patient with the silly American who forgot they're properly called mobiles rather than cellphones.
The trans-temporal psychic transmitter looked like a joke. It was powered by a hand-crank that might or might not have come off an eggbeater. The casing had probably been liberated from an old record player. And the bit that went on your head looked exactly like a colander with wires woven through it. The only part that appeared remotely high-tech was the touch plate, a white square of—possibly—glass. Or plastic. It felt more like plastic.
For all that, Lree did sense something as she put the colander on her head and her hand on the plate. It wasn't telepathic contact, not even close, but a sense of distance. As if the study was much larger than it seemed; as if her thoughts were falling into a cathedral.
"Hello," she said aloud—in Trelmian Diplomatic, not English, because she wasn't familiar with the device and wanted her thoughts to be as clear as possible. "I apologize greatly for any impudence or impertinence. I am Lree Gale, wife of Ace McShane, and I need your help . . ."
It was nine-forty-three at night and Ace McShane was on a coach several miles from London, being extremely bored.
She and her daughter Nisha had taken a day trip to see Ace's friend Donna. Donna was an A.C.E. donor and a spitfire, determined to take her newfound riches and Do Something with them; the current plan was a literacy foundation for disadvantaged children. Ace had a certain amount of experience in building international organizations, and rather to her own surprise, she had become Donna's informal consultant on everything foundation-related. And Nisha seemed to enjoy mothering Donna's two-year-old son, Wilfred (currently known as Freddie to avoid confusion with his great-grandfather), and Donna could tell absurd stories of office life in a way that always made Ace laugh, and her husband Shaun was a sweet, restful person even if it had taken Ace several meetings to figure out that he actually could talk. It was true that she had an ulterior motive on top of the other reasons to cultivate the connection, but it wasn't that big a thing—and she definitely shouldn't feel as if she was holding out on Donna by not telling her.
There were only eleven other people on the coach, counting the driver. Ace amused herself for a little while by trying to guess their life stories from the looks of them. The small bloke in the front, for instance, was an accountant or a clerk of some kind, and he liked his Sudoku; the little booklet of puzzles was well-thumbed. The ruddy-faced, jowly middle-aged man reading the Daily Mail—no, that should be the middle-aged wanker reading the Daily Mail, and that was all Ace really needed to know about him. The swot in the tweed—university, probably, desperately imitating some beloved older professor right down to his dress sense, only to have any fleeting shadow of dignity dispelled by the failed-boy-band hair.
Ace lingered on him; for an instant, she thought he had the Look. The next moment, she wasn't sure. There was something about him, but it wasn't quite the indefinable energy that followed ordinary humans who had reached out and touched wondrousness. In fact, he seemed very closed in on himself. Walled off. The body language of a man holding himself aloof.
The woman with the twins was currently deeply regretting having bought them pop; one of her boys was carrying on a steady monologue of, mummy, I have to wee, mummy, I really have to wee, this is important, mummy. The big ginger fellow, currently chatting up a rather pretty woman in a patterned hijab—
The swot in the tweed was watching her.
It wasn't overt. He wasn't staring at her; Ace might have been slightly less disturbed if he had been. Instead, he kept his head angled as if he were reading his book, only moved his eyes.
There was a calculation to that sort of observation, rather different from Ace's own casual perusal of the coach's occupants. She decided she didn't like it at all.
He looked away too quickly for her to give him her best try it and explode, arsewhistle glare. Back to his book, with a slightly overdone pantomime of casualness. It was a novel, too, not some dull text; Ace didn't think he was looking around just from boredom. She narrowed her eyes at him and kept staring, and a moment later he rewarded her with a quick glance.
Definitely watching her. Or watching Nisha, which was a prospect that made Ace's hands itch for her bat.
She didn't have time to process the thought. There was an eye-searing white light, a jolt that seemed to take her stomach in one direction and her body in another, and then all the lights on the coach went out.
Several people screamed, including Nisha. A man started cussing and carried on at length.
And then Nisha was sobbing, but it was the sobbing of a ten-year-old girl who deeply wished she wasn't, not the crying of a child in overwhelming pain and fear. Ace reached into her jacket for a torch.
She was preempted by a penlight and a sudden presence in the aisle. "Look at me," the creeper in tweed ordered Nisha quietly, and then shifted the torch back and forth between her eyes.
Ace brought out her own, much larger torch, hoping that nobody would think to ask how she could fit something the size of a billy club into a jacket pocket. "Is everyone all right?" First things first, after all.
"I lost my glasses," Nisha said. "I need my glasses." Which was quite true; she had absurdly poor eyesight.
There was a general babble of what happened, plaintively underscored by I wee'd, mummy. Mummy? I wee'd. Tweed Creeper sat back on his heels. "Well, they can't have got far, can they?" He raised his voice. "Everyone, we're looking for a pair of glasses, sort of silvery-goldish frames." He looked back to Nisha. "You're fine. No concussion, pupils are normal. Although in a few days, you'll have a lump on your head like a brachiosaurus." He smiled, a slightly off-kilter expression, and Ace was alarmed to see Nisha smiling shyly back.
"Are you a doctor, then?" Ace said challengingly.
The smile fled instantly. "Not as such," the man said, "not exactly." He stood up. "I think," he declared to the universe at large, "I've gone right off buses."
A girl, maybe fifteen or sixteen with bushy brown hair and way too much makeup, said, "What happened?" just as the coach's reading lights came back on.
They weren't at full power, and they were a sort of grimy yellow color instead of crisp white. They also weren't all working; it was just the lights where people had been sitting, which left quite a lot of the coach in deep shadow. Still, there was a general feeling of relief. "First things first," Ace said. "Everyone check the person next to you, make sure they're okay."
The driver had got out of his chair, looking somewhat unsteady and holding onto the passenger seats. "I didn't hit anything," he said. "I swear I didn't. There was nothing."
"I believe you," Ace said. "It didn't feel like a crash. It felt like—"
"What?" said the teen.
Like a very, very rough transmat. "Like a lurch," Ace improvised. The motor wasn't running. Did internal combustion engines fail during a transmat? Ace wasn't sure it had ever been tested.
"Mummy, I wee'd in my trousers. Mummy . . ."
"Er," the accountant said, "are these the glasses?"
They were. "Yes," Ace said, "thank you." She handed them back to Nisha and turned in the middle of the aisle, assessing. People were very frightened, and they were probably right to be, but nobody was screaming and running. Not yet. That was good. "All right. We might be in a bit of a bind, but we're all alive and in one piece, which means that whatever's going on, it's fundamentally sort-able. Now—" She focused on the driver. "Can you see out the front, at all? Where are we? Off the road, on the road?"
"Who're you, then?" He might have meant it to come out challenging. Instead, it sounded lost and forlorn.
"My name's Dee McShane. This is my daughter Manisha. You?"
"Curtis. Curtis Beck. Um, I couldn't see anything a moment ago, the headlights are out—I'll see if it's any good now—" He wobbled back towards the cab.
Ace turned her attention back to the passengers and started soliciting introductions. The teen was Britney Smith. The accountant was Emmett, the mother was Janine, and the Daily Mail reader—Ace resigned herself to rescuing him, too—was Gary Bainbridge, and she was going to have to remember not to call him Vernon Dursley even though she suspected he deserved it. There was also Shirin, Todd, and Patrick.
Nobody had a mobile phone signal. But then, Ace hadn't expected them to.
Creepy In Tweed had moved onto Janine's two children and was talking quietly to them. Given that she still wasn't sure if he'd been staring at her or Nisha, Ace decided to interrupt. "And you, bowtie. Who're you, then?"
He stood up and turned towards her, forefingers poised in the air like a hunt-and-peck typist. "Nobody. Absolutely nobody in particular." A pause, during which Ace thought of cyclopses and the danger presented by nobodies. "Ian," the man said, sounding reluctant. "Ian Chesterford."
"I can't see anything outside," Curtis the driver called back. "I think the windshield might be covered with leaves. I'm gonna take a look out the—"
"No!" And now everyone was staring at her. "I'll look out the door," Ace said, more calmly. "Give me a minute. Nish . . ." There was really no privacy; she couldn't say, don't trust that Chesterford bloke, I don't like the way he watches people. "Stay put," Ace finished, and made her way up to the front.
A torch beam out the door revealed slanting forms that looked more like leaning stones than trees. Ace pressed her palm against the door. It was neither excessively hot nor noticeably cold.
They weren't going to get anywhere sitting inside, not with all the phones out. So Ace put her hand inside her jacket pocket and nodded to Curtis. Curtis threw the lever.
It was rock outside. Bare rock, dried-blood brown in the flashlight beam. None of the stones had been obviously shaped; they looked like natural, wind-carved rock, the kind you might find in Nevada or Utah. There was a slight breeze, dry and scratchy and smelling stale, as if everything around was long dead. And it was cold, a sort of sly, sneaking cold that would feel only slightly chilly at first but worked its way into a person's bones.
"What the hell," Curtis said behind her.
Ace swept the torch beam towards the front of the coach. The grille was flush against a large stone; the window had to be inches from it. They were very lucky they hadn't—no. Wait. Ace stalked towards the front of the vehicle, all senses tingling with the pursuit of an anomaly.
The grille wasn't against a large stone. It was inside it. Just a little bit of the coach had disappeared seamlessly inside the rock. Materialized there, Ace thought.
She looked back along the coach and noticed a smaller rock stuck into one of the back wheels the same way. "Not going anywhere in a hurry," she murmured to herself.
"No, I mean seriously. What the hell. What the helling—hell. How are we—where's the road?"
"At a guess? Pretty far off." Ace looked up. Pure blackness, untouched by stars. A quick search with the torch beam didn't reveal a cave ceiling. "Cloud?" she asked the sky rhetorically. "Or nebula?"
"Well, it sounds like we're in a pretty large space. Hear that wind?" It was one of the least comforting winds Ace had ever heard, lonely and whispery and somehow resentful, so she went on quickly. "We aren't in England; rock this color reminds me more of Australia than anything else. But I don't see any plants, there are no stars—"
"That's 'cause it's cloudy," Curtis said. "Right?" Ace didn't think he meant right to come out quite as desperate-sounding as it had.
"Yeah . . . could be, but I'm not convinced. We're nowhere near people, because we'd see the lights even more on a cloudy night. Besides, nobody on Earth goes around beaming coaches off highways. Although . . ." Space-time anomalies, dimensional shifts, little flaws in the fabric of the universe—there were things that could happen by accident. The fact that there was nobody here to greet them, or more likely threaten them, did argue for some sort of happenstance rather than a plan.
"Wait. Beaming, like—"
"Star Trek, yeah. But don't mention it to aliens. They nitpick the science like you wouldn't believe."
Curtis stared at her. "You're mental," he said finally, faintly.
"Where do you think we are, then?"
"I don't know—we crashed, maybe I hit my head, maybe we're not actually—oh, God, I could be dead." He made a sound that was halfway between a sob and a disturbingly hysterical giggle.
"No, you aren't." Ace turned around. "Curtis? Curtis, listen to me."
"We're dead, we're all dead, I crashed the bus and we've gone to Hell, we're—"
"—dead, we're going to be here forever, we're—"
"—God, oh, God, please—"
And then he stopped. The hair on the back of Ace's neck rose.
She flashed the torch up to Curtis's face.
It was absolutely calm. Despite the darkness, his pupils were so tiny that his eyes didn't look quite real. "Kill her," Curtis said serenely.
Ace bared her teeth. "Let him go, toerag." It wasn't just that that particular phrase made her insides give a nasty lurch. She knew a psychic takeover when she saw one. And she could feel something, cold and ghastly, not so much an actual sensation as a creeping dread from down where her instincts lived. This was an evil place. There were bad things here. Malicious and rotting and hateful.
Curtis didn't answer her. He started walking instead.
It was the deliberate walk of someone who was being remote controlled and not going to stop any time soon. Ace said, "Curtis! Curtis!" without any real expectation of a response, then swept his legs out from under him and pounced.
He didn't put up any resistance, which surprised her. Britney appeared in the doorway just as Ace had him solidly sat upon. "What's wro—what are you doing?" And then she took in the rest of the landscape. "Oh, Jesus, where are we?"
"Dunno," Ace panted, "but he went all funny. Get a couple of blokes to give me a hand, would you?"
It took several disorganized moments to get Curtis back into the bus. He didn't struggle, but he did try to start walking every time he was reasonably close to upright, and he was too big to drag easily. By the time Ace had got him sat down and restrained (by getting Vernon—dammit, Gary—to sit on his legs) Britney had apprised everyone of their not-in-England situation.
"Mum?" That was Nisha, and—dammit, double dammit—she'd been sitting right beside Ian Chesterwhatsit, deep in conversation. "Is this one of your things?"
"One of what things?" Britney's voice was too high-pitched. "What sort of things?"
"A crisis," Ace said. "I do crisis management." Sometimes, admittedly, by managing to create a crisis. Now, aiming crises at the people who deserved them, that was somewhat more delicate work . . . "Yes, it's true, we're in the middle of some sort of badlands. And yes, it's true that Curtis here has had some sort of—break."
"But you beat him up," Britney said.
"Oh, shut it." That was Gary Bainbridge, and quite to Ace's surprise, he softened his tone immediately. "Look, she couldn't let him go rambling off, could she? He might've walked off a cliff. We've got to stick together, otherwise who knows what'll happen to us?"
"Exactly." Who said she was stubborn once she made up her mind about someone? "Gary is right; we're a team. We've got to act as a team. Now, what've we got? Do Chesterford and I have the only torches?"
The consensus was that Chesterford and Ace did, in fact, have the only torches. There were numerous mobiles, which might as well be used for light since they weren't good for anything else at the moment. Patrick had a lighter. Ace had an industrial lighter, the long wand-shaped kind, which she handed off to Emmett on the principle that he seemed like a fairly sane, if non-assertive sort. "How did you," Britney said, and then, "how did she—"
Nobody seemed to be listening, which was possibly just as well. Yes, my pockets are bigger on the inside didn't always go over wonderfully. Some people panicked—reasonably, when you thought about it—when people showed weird and unearthly powers. This was not the time to explain that Ace's social connections could bend the laws of physics for her.
She wished the Professor was here.
"The coach isn't going anywhere in a hurry," Ace said. "There's a rock right through one of the tires." In a rather different way than she made it sound. "Now, we aren't finding out anything here. I say let's all go and have a poke around, except that someone has to sit on Curtis—literally. If we—"
She was interrupted by a short shriek from Janine.