The Doctor slept on the sofa in the dayroom, in a pair of striped pyjamas that he emerged from the bathroom in. Sarah Jane slept in the most luxurious bed she could imagine, a big wide one with a soft, comfortable mattress, satin sheets and pillow covers and a thick, warm duvet over her. She went to sleep dreaming of dancing with The Doctor, telling herself she was far too old for those sort of dreams, and arguing back with herself that she didn’t care. It was a good dream.
She wasn’t sure what woke her. But something did. Something that made her sit up, warily, even a little frightened. The bedside lamp came on automatically in response to her movement, but she put it off again right away and climbed out of the bed in the dark.
Because she had heard a shout outside in the dayroom, and the unmistakeable sounds of a struggle. She opened the door carefully and in the half-light of a dimmed table lamp she saw two dark figures fighting with The Doctor, who was using the sort of martial arts she often saw him doing in his third incarnation, but even more lively and agile than he was the. The two men were nimble and agile, too and were putting up a fight. The Doctor was having to fend off blows from both of them. He was holding his own, though.
Then one of the men backed towards the bedroom door and Sarah Jane saw him pull a long knife from his belt. She acted quickly, without thinking. She grabbed the closest object on the shelf by the door – it felt like a paperweight - and brought it down hard on the forearm of the assailant. The knife felt, landing point down in the soft carpet and vibrating gently. The accomplice, who was meanwhile being given a pasting by The Doctor shouted something in an accent that Sarah Jane felt she vaguely recognised and then the two turned and ran towards the faux window behind the desk. She had the curious idea they were going to jump out of it, and wondered how since it wasn’t a real window. Then there was a shimmer in the air and the two vanished. A transmat, of course.
The Doctor raced after them, his sonic screwdriver held in the air where they had vanished as if he was testing it.
“Thank you Sarah Jane,” he said as she stepped towards him. She saw he had a nasty bruise on his face, but was otherwise unhurt. “I really have to stop wearing these pyjamas,” he added. “I’m always having to fight in them. Remind me to tell you about the Sycorax….” He turned and switched on the computer at the desk and used it to videophone the head of security on the ship. While he waited for the connection he looked up at Sarah Jane. “Were you hurt? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she assured him. “Thanks for asking. You’re much more considerate than you used to be. What was that all about? Who were they?”
“I intend to find out,” he answered as the security chief appeared on screen, looking worried. His tail, looped around his arm twitched as he faced a VIP guest reporting masked intruders in his room. As he listened to The Doctor’s report, however, his staff interrupted him with news that several more such intrusions had taken place and four key members of the Treaty delegation had been kidnapped.
“They’re using the service transporters,” The Doctor told him. “Get them sealed to anyone but your own security staff. Make sure external anti-transmat shields are at maximum. Lockdown the ship. NOW.”
He ended the video call and turned back to Sarah Jane. She was wearing a long black satin nightdress in a similar style to her evening dress but simplified and without corsetry.
“Grab a pair of shoes,” he said as he slipped his trainers onto his bare feet. “And come on with me.”
“Come where?” Sarah Jane asked as she found her flat-heeled day shoes and a cardigan. “What are we doing?”
“Rescuing the kidnapped diplomats, saving the conference,” he answered. “Somebody doesn’t want it to happen. We do.”
He stood near the window and held out his hand to her. As she drew closer he slipped one arm around her waist and with the other he held up the sonic screwdriver and pressed a button on it. Sarah Jane was aware of a tug in the pit of her stomach like going over the first drop of a roller coaster.
Then she was really dropping. She was in some kind of lift shaft with no lift. Green strips of light on each floor were passing by with alarming velocity.
“Oops,” said The Doctor with surprising calm and adjusted the sonic screwdriver. She gasped with relief to find herself still dropping, but at a slow, easy speed. She was standing on something. She could feel something solid under her feet that moved down slowly. But she knew if she looked down her feet would seem to be in mid air. She didn’t look down. She looked at The Doctor.
“Anti grav cushions?”
“Yep,” he responded. “Service lift shaft. It’s a bit more primitive than the first class one. Sorry about the drop. I traced the transmat signal from our intruders. I expected us to come out somewhere solid. They must have a remote control for the anti-grav.”
“Does that mean this is an inside job?” Sarah Jane asked. “If they have access to all these places?”
“Well done,” The Doctor said. “I never thought of that. Should have done. I think they hit me harder than it felt. But they’re not staff. All the staff are Vulpesi. Those two had no tails.”
“They had no faces, either. They were… like shadows of people… all black.” She remembered as much detail as she could, black heads, with a shape of a nose, but no eyes or mouth. “They were like black versions of a Raston robot,” she added. “You know… those things that can move like lightning. Can’t have been, though,” she continued. “The one I hit was flesh and bone all right.”
“Zentai,” The Doctor said.
“Bless you,” Sarah Jane quipped, despite feeling just a bit nervous about how long this lift was taking to reach the bottom and how long that meant the shaft she didn’t want to look down at was.
“A Zentai is a tight fitting all over body suit,” he explained. “Like Spiderman?”
“Oh, right. Anyway, definitely not Vulpesi. So how come they’re down here?”
“One of the questions I intend to ask them,” The Doctor replied. “Just as soon as I catch up with them.”
They finally reached the bottom of the lift shaft and The Doctor opened the access door with his sonic screwdriver. Sarah Jane noted that he used it a lot more these days than he used to. He whipped it out of his pocket at every pretext. But why not? Why let a door get in your way when you’re in a hurry to catch kidnappers?
He looked out cautiously first then reached for Sarah Jane’s hand. He was surprised to find something in her hand. She was surprised to realise she was still holding it, still. In the excitement she had forgotten to put it down.
It was the paperweight. She looked at it now and noticed it was a miniature of that Gallifreyan city in the mural and window view, enclosed in a half globe of glass.
“Oh, pretty,” she said, slipping it in her cardigan pocket.
“Very pretty,” The Doctor remarked as he took her now freed hand and they stepped forward into a long service corridor with a metal bulkhead door some few dozen yards ahead.
The corridors above on the public decks, of course, were luxurious. They were wide and brightly lit, the air conditioned and delicately scented. There were carpets on the floor and textured walls of lilac and beige.
Down here there were dull lights every few yards and the air was warm and stuffy and smelt like a laundrette. The floor was metal, meshlike panels not unlike the floor of the TARDIS and the walls were plain, dull grey. The ceiling was hidden by rows of thick pipes that gurgled ominously. Despite the air being warm, some of the pipes looked ice cold.
“Recycling conduits,” The Doctor explained. “All the waste water from the ship comes down here, into huge cats were the hydrogen and oxygen are extracted and any essential minerals and the dehydrated impurities are condensed and sent to the waste disposal. Then the elements are reconstituted into H2O and the minerals that give it a pleasant taste for drinking are put back in. That’s why the pipes are near freezing. It’s all done at very low temperature. By the time its all pumped back up around the ship it’s a bit warmer.
“You don’t just mean waste water from baths and showers and washing up, do you?” Sarah Jane asked. “Toilets…” The Doctor gave one of his inscrutable smiles. She thought about it logically. If the oxygen and hydrogen were extracted and then reconstituted, then the resulting water was perfectly pure and wholesome. All the same, she really rather wished she had never known about it. She wasn’t sure how she would feel about the next cup of tea she was offered.
When The Doctor explained that all waste food matter was similarly reduced down to constituent molecules and recycled she was heartily glad that she found that out AFTER the grand banquet that she had enjoyed last night.
“Well, how else does a ship like this cope with the amount of waste it produces?” The Doctor argued. “It’s state of the art recycling. Earth will catch onto the same ideas in a century or so.”
They were walking past the vats where it all happened, and it was Sarah Jane who noticed one thing that didn’t quite seem right about it all.
“Are these systems automatic?” she asked. “Or should there be people down here working?”
“A skeleton staff at least,” The Doctor agreed. “There is a certain amount of automation, but somebody ought to be watching the pressure gauges or something.”
The recycling sector was empty. The Doctor took that as a warning that there would almost certainly be trouble ahead and approached the next bulkhead door cautiously. He used the sonic screwdriver to unlock it and opened it a mere crack. He and Sarah Jane both peered through.
Inside what looked like a storage area, four of the zentai clad men were standing guard over a group of prisoners, all with their arms and legs bound. The female Oriaian, with her wings folded flat against her back, the diminutive Ambassador of Sto, one of the Alpha Centaurians, and a man who looked like a living tree, with long hair like weeping willow shoots and a bark-textured body were the VIP hostages. All peace-loving, non-combatant species, The Doctor noted. They didn’t try to grab a Draconian or a Raxacoricophalipatorian!
A half dozen Vulpesi workers in lilac and beige boiler suits sat among them. Their tails trailed miserably on the floor, and Sarah Jane couldn’t help thinking they seemed, not only scared of their captors, but disgusted and embarrassed by them. Whenever one of the black clad men came close they gave them a withering look.
The hostage takers all had long knives. The Doctor sized up the odds. If they rushed in, he and Sarah Jane could certainly take down one of them, maybe two if Sarah Jane was quick with her paperweight. But that left two more who could have a knife against a hostage’s throat.
“Diversion,” he said and adjusted the sonic screwdriver to laser mode. He aimed the nearly invisible beam at several spots along the water pipes on the ceiling. Ice cold water at some considerable pressure spurted out. One of the hostage takers immediately ran towards the bulkhead door and was met by a pretty paperweight model of Gallifrey’s capital city square in the face. One down, three to go. The Doctor jumped quickly over the unconscious man and met the second with a martial arts kick. A third one tried to grab Sarah Jane but she again used her unlikely weapon and winced as she heard his knife arm crack. The Doctor pulled him to the floor as he turned to look for the fourth. As he had feared, he was trying to use a hostage as a shield. He had reached to pull the Oriaian female up from the ground. But before The Doctor could react the Ambassador of Sto, still bound hand and foot, rolled over in front of the hostage taker and tripped him. His knife flew out of his hand and the tree-like man kicked it away as he sprawled on the ground. Sarah Jane grabbed the knife and started to undo the bonds of the hostages. She was quite surprised by the reaction of the Vulpesi workers when she freed them. They kicked at the zentai wearing former kidnappers as The Doctor attempted to tie their hands behind their backs with the discarded ropes.
“Steady on,” he said. “Rules of war. You don’t kick a man when he’s already down.”
“These are no men,” replied one of the Vulpesi, the foreman of the recycling department. They are traitors. They shame our race.”
“Your race?” Sarah Jane queried. “But…” Then she remembered where she had heard the accent the kidnappers all had before. It was the same as the Vulpesi who had been serving her in various ways since she arrived on the ship. “But… their tails…”
“That is their greatest shame,” replied the Vulpesi foreman. “They had their tails removed, to disguise themselves.”
The Doctor reached and pulled off the face mask of one of his prisoners. He looked, as all the Vulpesi did, like an ordinary humanoid. The tail was the only distinguishing feature of a Vulpesi. Without it… well, what were they?”
“We are the Free Vulpesi,” snapped the prisoner. “We believe our tails are symbolic of servitude and oppression. We go tailless as a mark of our freedom.”
“Carrying weapons and kidnapping innocent people?” The Doctor snapped back. “The Vulpesi are peace loving. They are the most trusted race in the galaxy. They work for the Galactic Diplomatic Corps because they have no political allegiance or alliance. They cannot be bought or blackmailed. They are honourable.”
“These besmirch that honour,” said the Vulpesi foreman. “We are not an oppressed people. We are not in servitude. We work willingly, for the good of the galaxy in the capacity our skills best suit us for. We despise these &@#£^&*.”
Most of the delegates would not have known what that word meant. The Doctor knew five billion languages, including the swear words of those languages. Sarah Jane was a former traveller in the time vortex who had alien languages translated for her because of the low-level artron radiation of the TARDIS. She blushed at the meaning of the word, but felt it was appropriate.
“Our own leaders will deal with them,” the Vulpesi assured The Doctor and the other delegates, and sure enough, a few minutes later the head of Security arrived along with his lilac uniformed men. They were surprised but not displeased to find their job half done and quickly took the Free Vulpesi into custody, thus making their title redundant. The Vulpesi foreman told his people they could take the rest of the night off, and a relief crew would come down, but they all said they were happy to take a half hour refreshment break and then continue their shift.
“Are they really happy to do their jobs then?” Sarah Jane asked as she and The Doctor went with the liberated delegates up to the observation lounge for some refreshments of their own and to give a formal statement of what had happened. “They’re not ‘slaves’?”
“They’re perfectly happy. They’re not slaves. Nobody thinks of them that way. They are a respected, honoured people. I know slaves. I’ve seen a few in my time. Liberated a few. Next time you have tea with Donna, get her to tell you about the Ood. The Vulpesi are fine. Those few got some funny ideas in their heads. A tailless Vulpesi!”
“It would be like one of us sheering of our wings,” the Oraiain noted. “Unthinkable. I hope their people will treat them kindly, though. They were misguided, but perhaps they can be rehabilitated.”
“I hope so,” Sarah Jane agreed. She yawned and expressed the hope that their debriefing would not take too long. She still needed her beauty sleep.
“No you don’t,” The Doctor told her gallantly. “But if you want a lie in, I’ll try not to disturb you in the morning.”
“Disturb me,” she insisted. “I want to see this Conference. Don’t you dare leave me out of anything.”
He promised. And in the morning he kept his promise. After a breakfast at which Sarah Jane tried not to think about the water that made her tea or how many times the protein in her scrambled eggs had been recycled, she went with The Doctor to the fan shaped room that had been the ballroom last night. Now it was a great conference room. She sat on the front row of the gallery and watched as The Doctor took his place actually as vice-chairman of the conference, steering the debates. Her heart swelled with pride in him. HER Doctor, who had saved Earth so often, now working so hard to protect it for posterity.
And later that day, when she made him a cup of tea in her own kitchen, with water that hadn’t been through any recycling process, she smiled to see the two souvenirs of her trip on The Doctor’s roller coaster. A paperweight with a miniature representation of the Capitol of Gallifrey and a parchment scroll which was a copy of the Second Shadow Proclamation, setting out the terms of the Treaty and with facsimiles of the signatures of all of the delegates. The Vice Chairman’s signature was the second one after the chairman.
“Good job I have those,” she said. “Otherwise the kids will never believe me when I tell them.” She put the sugar and milk in his tea and passed it to him. “It was good to ride the roller coaster one more time. But I’m glad to get my feet back on the ground again, too.”
“That’s as it should be,” The Doctor assured her with his wide smile. “Until next time, Sarah Jane?”
“Yes,” she agreed. “Until next time.”