Title: Practical Mythology
Summary: Jack Harkness is a conman and a survivor. He doesn't believe in legends. And he shouldn't be running toward the invisible menace—but he is.
Warnings: Explicit and disturbing violence in this chapter. Also a few swearwords.
"Wait." I pulled us up short. "There's something–that hill over there–"
"I feel it," the Doctor said shortly, in the exact same tone anyone else would say I see it. It wasn't anything mystical, or even the vagueness that psis occasionally go in for. He was just working with a different set of senses.
"It's blurry." Rose leaned forward and squinted, not letting go of either of our hands. "It's a sort of red–blur–thing–"
"It's chalicewort. Just a plant, blowin' in the wind." The Doctor took the lead, steering us away from the hill. His expression was set and grim
and very, very forbidding.
Rose shook her head. "It doesn't look like–"
"Except," the Doctor went on, as if he'd always planned on continuing the sentence, "it's past a differential. Time's runnin' faster on that
I blinked at it. It did look like one of the low scrub-plants being blown by the wind, only sped up to a ridiculous degree. You get a similar background flicker in nature holos which show seeds growing, if they don't edit it out.
"An uncontrolled time differential," I whispered, half to myself. "What could do that?"
"Something this way, now stop wittering and march."
There was a square grey building ahead of us. It was set in a sort of dip, an old meteor crater, perhaps. So we had a good long time to see the
Nehaluar sprinting in our general direction.
He looked saurian, sort of. Knees that went the opposite of human knees, long stiff tail with feathers, feet with two huge toes apiece, and a face with a short muzzle. He had dark brown skin and a crest of feathers running from the spot between his eyes to–as near as I could see, he was coming towards us–his tail. He also had feather fringes on his arms. His plumage was mostly forest green, speckly, but the tip of his head-feathers were dark red, which is why I decided he was a he in the first place. With birdlike people, it can be hard to tell.
He was also fleeing in terror. He fell once and scrabbled to his feet with a frenetic, panicky motion that implied monsters right behind him. There was nothing there.
He saw us. I could see the shock from meters away; his whole crest spasmed. Then he turned towards us.
The Doctor started forward, still holding on to Rose's hand. "No!" He made desperate warding measures with his free hand. "Stay there! There's a moving–"
And then the Nehaluar seemed to hit the empty air, and stick. His head froze as if grabbed by a vise; the rest of him convulsed. I could see
the wave of immobility overtake him, from head to chest to hands to legs, pinning his thrashing body as it went. It was an unnatural posture
of agony, composed of several seperate muscle spasms over the course ofa minute. It would have looked incredibly, horrifically wrong even if he hadn't been suspended mid-air, mid-leap.
Rose lunged forward.
I think the Doctor and I both yanked her right back at the same time, which must have hurt; she yelped. I said, "Rose, no, you have to stay
with the vortex manipulator–"
"He needs help–"
There was a short silence.
"He's dead," the Doctor repeated distantly. "The temporolentation hit his brain first. The heart would have managed on its own for a few beats,
just long enough to force blood into the brain. Since that part of his body was slowed, the blood couldn't leave again, producing a cataclysmic
pressure increase. Brain, crushed. Eyes, ruptured. Soft tissue, better not to think about." He started forward again. "Best way to go, in a
We were walking toward the horrible floating corpse. That was bad enough. The Doctor's voice was worse. It was very matter-of-fact, very calm–where calm is the windless, oppressive space under unearthly greenish skies just before the funnel cloud descends. "Best?" Rose said, in a strangled voice.
The Doctor's tone didn't change at all. "Never ask."
Dread can get so strong that it actually hurts, and this was close. My throat and my stomach were clenched. The space-time continuum had turned gruesomely murderous. I couldn't run from it or fight it or even see it. To get to the source of the problem, we would have to walk towards at least one patch of horribly wrong distorted time, only marked by a bloody-eyed corpse that hadn't begun to fall. And the only thing between me and death was a broken vortex manipulator that had been converted into I-didn't-know-what by an alien of uncertain provenance using a sonic screwdriver.
"Doctor?" my voice said. It sounded funny, like a recorded message.
The Doctor didn't seem to notice me until Rose squeezed his hand.
"I think you should get on the other side of me. Hold my other hand. Get you closer to the vortex manipulator."
Something ancient and desolate and very far away looked at me through the Doctor's eyes. It focused on me by degrees. By the time the Doctor met my gaze, he almost felt like a person again, and not a living gate into deep and horrible dimensions.
Almost. Luckily, I was already too frightened to be spooked. "Doctor," I said hoarsely, "over here. It's closer to the manipulator." I wiggled my hand.
"I don't–" He looked at my hand, then at me. "Trying to keep me safe, is it?" Very much not to my relief, he let out a peculiar, not-quite-sane giggle. "Why not?"
When he let go of Rose's hand, I had a momentary, overwhelming dread that he would dash out into the time storm. But he just strode over and took my other hand in his.
"Doctor," Rose said, "remember. We're here an' this is now."
She got a very slight nod in return, and then the Doctor stepped forward. Which meant that I had to walk forward as well.
There is no scale in the universe that can measure how much I didn't want to.
The Doctor's hand was cool. Not icy, just cool and dry. A sharp contrast to Rose's hand, which was sweating as badly as mine was.
We were about five meters from the corpse. I wondered how I could know if the vortex manipulator was working. I couldn't hear Tua'amna's constant wind. Was that because this basin was shielded from it, or because it had stopped around us, or because the time distortion was preparing to pounce, or just because my pulse was so ridiculously loud?
I didn't think that the coolness or the steadiness of the Doctor's grip had anything to do with his emotions. I've seen that look before, or its
nearest human equivalent. Veteran's eyes. The thousand meter stare.
Rose. Gods of our ancestors, the kid was good. We're here and this is now–the one thing he needed to know more than anything else. If he could hold onto it.
Four meters. Three meters. We had to be inside the distortion by now, didn't we? Did we? How were they shaped? How could you fight something you couldn't see?
Was the vibration from my vortex manipulator slightly more pronounced, or was I just imagining it?
We were even with the corpse. Walking past it.
And then there was a sudden gust of wind, and I made a noise like a frog, and Rose gasped.
"Far edge of the lentation," the Doctor said. "Air piles up a bit. You two all right?"
I nodded jerkily. "Lentation?"
It sounded like an Earth word. I wondered if it was.
We passed through several more bands of distorted time on the way to the gray building.
The temporoceleritations were worse than the slowdowns. (Why celeritation and not acceleration? I have no idea; maybe because acceleration already meant something very specific to physicists. I wasn't going to argue.) We were in a bubble of normal time, a little invisible bathysphere plodding onward through equally invisible death. And in the worst of the celeritations, anything that moved was invisible too, blurred out of perception by speed. It was almost as if we were creating things by approaching them, making reddish fog coalesce into scrub brush and particles of sand materialize out of nothing. It wasn't objectively more dangerous than the slowdowns, but my instincts said that things kept popping out of nowhere and that was bad, bad, bad, why wasn't I panicking yet?
And then a Nehaluar's head appeared out of nowhere, eyes wide and then suddenly bloodshot, and someone screamed, and I jerked backwards, holding the others' hands so tight that I'm surprised I didn't break bones, and–
And there was a corpse on the ground in front of us, feathers blurred into a fog by the accelerated wind. The same thing had happened to her than happened to the red-crested kid further up the hill. Only we were on the other side of it, this time.
Only we caused it, this time. Us and our little bubble.
"Stupid," the Doctor said. It was almost a whisper. "Stupid, stupid overgrown chicken, chargin' in, all, 'ooh, the aliens will save me,' didn't stop to think, 'what happens when I hit the time shear?' Never stop to think. You never, ever–"
"Doctor," Rose interrupted shakily, "the rocks."
The rocks in front of us had rearranged themselves. In a blur.
They said, Story 2 Lab 5 Glass Spike. And they said it in Englia 12.4. My native language.
I just gaped at it for a moment. I'd never even heard of Nehaluar before this. The Doctor had implied that they'd never seen aliens before. They
couldn't just–how could they–
"Oh, smart overgrown chicken," the Doctor breathed. He looked at me and Rose. "Don't you see? Saw his friend go down, didn't go runnin' in, and used his head. No way to get to us, but he can communicate. Did communicate." A sudden grin, only slightly broken. "Fantastic! Now we know where to go."
We both opened our mouths, but Rose got her question out first. "How can he even be alive out there? It's–" She motioned helplessly with
her free hand.
"'S not the celeritation that kills you, is it? It's the differential. The shear. But we need to move. The bands are shiftin', the distortions
aren't stayin' in one place–even if he has the sense to sit still, the shear could sweep across him and kill him. Can you two run? Jog, maybe?"
"I can try," Rose said.
"I won't let go," I promised. "Of either of you. But, Doctor, how can–"
"You just worry about Rose first. Now, run!"
By the time we made it to the squat gray building, I was wheezing. Rose was staggering. The Doctor hadn't been joking about the low oxygen
He also didn't appear to be having any problems of his own. Maybe, I thought, he was an artificial sapient. It would explain the room temperature skin. "Doctor?" I said.
"How did that Nehaluar know Englia?"
"I'll explain later. Door's this way."
"Your jaw will not fall off if it stops waggin', Captain, now move your feet!"
Rose squeezed my hand. "I'll explain later if he doesn't."
That made even less sense. Rose, as far as I knew, was as unfamiliar with Nehaluar as I was. Unless she and the Doctor had been here before–
"I can hear you, you know," the Doctor said. "Said I would explain, didn't I? So I will. Just not now."
The burst of action, not to mention the directions from the unseen Nehaluar in the celeritation, seemed to have distracted him from his memories, at least. We found the door hanging open and went in, an awkward group clinging together like mountain climbers. The inside of the building looked spare and industrial and not much different from human architecture. There are only so many ways to build corridors.
And this part of the place, at least, was in normal time. I saw the Nehaluar come out of the nearest room at a perfectly natural speed.
His right arm was hanging limp and one side of his face was bleeding badly. I remembered the damaged insect and thought about ways to die in a time storm. What would be worse than going brain-first? Going brain-last, of course. Or getting your arm stuck in slowtime, struggling to free yourself, not knowing whether the shear would let you go or creep across the rest of your body–
The Nehaluar screamed and charged at Rose.
I didn't think. I let go of both their hands and drove a vicious kick into the Nehaluar's hip as he dove for her, jaws gaping open. It landed
like a dream; the Nehaluar flew sideways. I closed with him, to fist-and-elbow range, not giving him a chance to react. Such a long,
long neck these beings had, a throat punch should disable him nicely–there–and break some bones in those feet, and–
"Jack! Jack!" It was Rose. "It's fine. He's down, you don't have to kill him."
She was right. I'd broken some of his bones; he wasn't going anywhere. I stepped back, breathing hard.
Rose knelt down, prudently out of range of his teeth. Nehaluar, I had just learned, have sharp inward-curving teeth, and in extremis, they will try to use them in combat. "We're here to help," Rose said. "We have to get upstairs. Where are the stairs?"
She was speaking twenty-first century English. No good, I thought.
I wouldn't have thought the Nehaluar could talk after the throat-punch. His voice came out as a broken rattle, but it was still more or less
comprehensible–in Englia. "Can–see you–"
"Where are the stairs?" Rose repeated. Of course, she couldn't understand him.
I wasn't sure why I could. Englia, here–and he wasn't speaking it like a foreign tongue, either, he sounded vaguely Solar–
"Think you're–invisible–I can seeeee you, aliens–"
"He's raving," I said. "Let's go." Used to the idea of aliens, sure. Twentieth century humans were used to the idea of aliens too, through all their books and movies. I remembered an ancient flatscreen drama from my Classical Media class. My professor thought it was about the disturbing psychological implications of motherhood in a culture that characterizes femininity as defined by sacrifice. I thought it was about a freighter that followed a mauve alert and found bad things in the dark. This Nehaluar was on a planet not his own, being attacked by an unknown, invisible malevolence; of course it was aliens. What else?
Any of these Nehaluar, if sufficiently panicked, would blame us for the crisis and attack us on sight. And in this situation, anyone would be sufficiently panicked. I took Rose's hand, turned around to warn the Doctor, and found that he had wandered a good five meters down the corridor, checking doors methodically.
I said a word in Englia that translates more or less as animal rapist, grasped Rose's hand tightly, and ran for him. "Are you out of your mind?"
"Listen, Doctor, you may not care about your own life, but if you die here Rose will–"
I don't usually lose track of conversations this fast. "What? What for?"
"For watchin' our backs. Been a long time since I've fought hand-to-hand. Changed a lot since then. Who knows if I still have the knack?" He
grabbed my hand and pulled us both onward.
Upstairs was worse.
My vortex manipulator was vibrating more. Some of the lighting panels had developed green-black spots, like bruised fruit; for all I knew, they
were bioluminescent and rotting from lack of nourishment or old age. There were several more corpses, in worse state than the ones we'd seen before. One of them seemed to have been decaying for days; apparently the differentials didn't kill bacteria. Rose covered her mouth and nose and averted her eyes as we went past. There was one Nehaluar, possibly still alive, caught in a reversing loop. He would tumble to the floor, then bounce back up again as if made of rubber, over and over again. I hoped to heaven it was the sort of loop you can't feel when you're
And the labs were numbered in Standard Terran Numerals, which still made no kind of sense. Unless, perhaps, a rogue time traveller had interfered drastically in their development–
When we got about even with Lab Four, I started to see the time distortions as shifts in the light, shimmers in the air. I saw a cold bluish curtain across the hall, saw it ripple and shift and then start to sweep towards us. Rose's grip tightened.
There was a body in front of the next door. Only it wasn't a body, because I saw it twitch and try to push itself up. I shouted, "Run!" and dragged
both Rose and the Doctor desperately forward, racing the temporal shear, which was accelerating toward the fallen Nehaluar.
We got to her just as the celeritation hit. This time I felt it hit, felt it jar my vortex manipulator as if our little bubble had been hit by a physical force. And our bubble wasn't invisible any longer. Icould see it, like a soap bubble between us and the time storm.
It wasn't a neat, round bubble. The edges billowed and heaved, and occasionally spun off smaller bubbles of normal time, which survived for
a second or two before being subsumed. It looked unstable. It looked collapsable. It looked very, very unsafe, and I was trusting my life to it.
The light was bruised red inside the celeritation.
The Doctor was already kneeling by the Nehaluar we'd saved. She was in bad shape, bleeding in multiple places, left leg badly wounded, right arm nightmarish, and missing most of her tail. The Doctor tied some sort of white cloth over that last wound, but it became red in seconds–or what I assumed was red, since the light made it hard to tell.
Her eyes were open, and wide as she looked up at him. "Can you talk?" the Doctor said. In Englia.
In a very familiar accent: Ru Islander. From my planet, not far from the peninsula where I was born. More questions piling up–
"Y–" the Nehaluar started, and then managed, "yours?"
"What were you workin' on?"
His face worked. "Why do I always get the thick ones, yes, I'm alien, tell me what you were workin' on, you stupid creature! Was it a weapon? Is this what you were tryin' to do?"
"A-a-alien–machine." She groped with her working hand, and I realized there was something very like a crowbar on the ground. "Not sure w-what–h-help us–"
The Doctor picked up the crowbar. "Jack," he said, "carry her."
I said, "stay close," not because Rose didn't know but because I was frightened, and picked up the Nehaluar–just as another time shear hit
us. This one turned the light ghostly blue, and I guessed it was a lentation. But it hit the bubble strongly enough that I could feel the impact, strongly enough that the skin of it flexed and billowed like a banner in a storm. It wasn't just getting worse because we were closer.
It was getting worse because it was getting worse.
The Doctor already had the door open. He was perilously close to the edge of the bubble, and I moved forward.
The laboratory was full of electrical equipment and measuring devices. I recognized some of them, by general type at least. And most labs seem to have long tables of one sort or another; these were lower than a human would like to work at, but still recognizable. Everything looked a bit twenty-first century.
Except the thing in the middle of the room. The glass spike that the Nehaluar in the celeritation had warned us about.
It was hard to see. All the rippling currents of color seemed to emanate from its tip. This close, some of the time distortions were only
centimeters across, but strong enough that you could see them warping the air. They lashed like agonized snakes. The cone itself was about a
meter and a half tall, with something glowing in the base of it. I almost thought I could make out more glass inside it, like the tubes inside the Tardis's central column, but converging rather than parallel.
There was one or more Nehaluar corpses right next to it. No, I don't know exactly how many. No, I don't want to describe why.
I only had a moment to take it in, because our bubble was being jostled and jolted. The edge nearest the glass spike was starting to look more
spherical, but I also got the sense that it was straining. The vibration on my wrist was strong enough to rattle my bones, and a bit
off-kilter, as if something was spinning to self-destruction.
I realized that we were all going to die. I took a step, barely keeping my balance, and the bubble didn't move with me. The distortions were
pushing it backwards, keeping it away from the spike. It was like trying to sail a toy sailboat straight at a giant fan.
And if we couldn't get to the spike, we couldn't stop it. How much worse would it get? How much wider could it spread? How many people were going to die because one cowardly conman couldn't manage–
The Nehaluar in my arms twitched. "Doctor," Rose said, "Doctor, I think she's dying."
"Yeah, probably." That eerie pre-tornadic calm again. "Blood loss, blood poisonin'. That arm's three days dead."
"I'm not that kind of Doctor," the Doctor said.
The time storm staggered me, pushing me backwards two steps, leaving the Doctor at the very edge of the bubble. We were all definitely going to die.
The Doctor lifted the crowbar and bared his teeth. "I'm this kind of Doctor."
He stepped through the membrane of our bubble, out into the storm.
- Fic: Practical Mythology (3/4)