Chapter Twenty Nine

After his evening with the Rani, the Doctor was feeling in need of some relaxation – at least for a short time. With this aim in mind, he walked around to the other side of the console to the two-seater chair and sat down. He stretched his long legs out in front of him and lounged against the back of the chair, his arm resting along its back. It was only when he had made himself comfortable that he realised that Catherine also deserved to be comfortable. He knew that the encounter with the Rani probably hadn’t been the easiest for her – the Rani never had much time for other women, especially attractive ones, and Catherine did look attractive in the outfit that the TARDIS had provided for her. But Catherine had handled it extremely well. As he always knew she would.

For the first time since their meeting with the Rani, the Doctor really considered Catherine’s perspective on it all. He knew that she wouldn’t have appreciated being set up to appear as his ‘bit of fluff’ travelling with him for pleasure only and he certainly did not think of her in that way. Sarah or Tegan would have seriously taken him to task for setting up such a scenario. And in principle, he would definitely agree with their criticism. But neither Sarah nor Tegan had ever been in precisely this situation as they had never met the Rani. This was the best way to preserve Catherine’s liberty while he discovered the information they needed to complete her investigations. How could he explain to her that the Rani would recognise that he might travel with an attractive alien woman as a companion, that she would expect it?

The last two times they met, he had been accompanied by female companions – the last time, it had been Mel; previously it had been Peri – both attractive in their own ways, although in both cases that was not why they travelled with him. But what would her reaction have been if she had known that he was travelling with a sergeant from Central Orion Protection and Security? As an attractive companion travelling with him for pleasure, and an alien at that, Catherine would, for the most part, be allowed her freedom by the Rani. If she were known as a sergeant, Catherine would probably have found herself confined somewhere awaiting one of the Rani’s experiments.

Catherine’s presence in the TARDIS was, and always would be, because she could make important contributions to the tasks at hand. His recognition of her as a kindred spirit was just a bonus. At least that is what he believed. But Catherine was so perceptive that she knew instinctively what he needed from her, although they had not talked of it, and played along with the aura he was trying to create. He was very grateful for that, but inwardly, he sighed. However, he was both concerned for her and delighted when she had shown the Rani that regardless of the reasons for travelling with him, Catherine did have a mind of her own. Outwardly, a frown creased his forehead between his eyebrows as he thought about this meeting with the Rani. She seemed to have submitted just a shade too easily to her exile…..

There were many questions that Catherine would like to ask the Doctor about their recent meeting with the Rani. He had partially shocked Catherine and he had certainly confused her, but she thought she understood why the meeting had progressed the way it had. Normally, she wouldn’t have even considered asking the questions that were uppermost in her mind at the moment because they were not really her concern. However, if she was seriously considering his invitation to travel with him for more than just one or two trips, she needed the answers so she could make a truly informed decision about his offer. And she was seriously considering it. She thought the opportunity to travel through time and space was probably too good to miss.

Firstly, she thought, she really should return the TARDIS key to him. It was a simple enough looking key which appeared to be like any other non-electronic key – silver-grey in colour, indentations where it would meet the TARDIS lock perfectly and uniquely, a small hole in its rounded end where it could be placed on a key holder of some sort. Keys like this were rarely used these days, except for showy appearance. They usually had some form of electronic device built in, so they worked like normal keys. As she was interested in the preservation of antiquities – one of the things that had made her choose this particular task at the Eye for her team – she could recall seeing the real non-electronic ones in museums. It seemed strange to her that a key like this should be used for such a complex ship as the Doctor’s TARDIS. Although she was convinced that the key was not as simple as it appeared to be, Catherine was intrigued by the bizarre affectation that made it appear to be nothing more than a simple archaic key. Regardless of its true nature, she knew that it wasn’t hers to keep. She realised that the sooner she returned it the better it would be. Besides, the Doctor mightn’t have a spare one!

Deciding that there was no time like the present, Catherine walked around past the console and sat down on the seat beside the Doctor. She asked, rhetorically, “Do you mind? This is so much more comfortable than standing…..” He didn’t even look in her direction.

To Catherine, the Doctor seemed to be deep in thought, but she was determined to return the key. “Doctor,” she asked, “I think you’d better have this back.” She held the key out to him.

He looked at her and grinned suddenly. “Thanks, but you may as well keep it for the time being. I do have another one!”

Catherine looked surprised for a moment, before she smiled in return. She might have guessed that he’d have more than one key. It was a pity, she thought, that she didn’t have a key holder to attach it to so she couldn’t lose it.

As if he knew what she was thinking, he searched his pockets and located a long pendant length silver-grey chain that matched the key exactly. He handed it to her, saying, “This might come in useful, so the key doesn’t disappear through another hole in your pocket.” The Doctor smiled one of his illuminating smiles.

Catherine was very appreciative of the gesture. She had forgotten about the hole in her tan battle jacket pocket that she had discovered on the way to Node Two. It seemed that the Doctor hadn’t though. She didn’t know whether to be pleased that he remembered or not. Still, it was academic really. The main thing was that she didn’t lose his key while she had it in her safe-keeping. Her instinct told her that, if asked, he would attach the chain for her, but she was determined to do it herself, as a matter of principle. It wasn’t difficult to do, anyway.

Once she had satisfied herself that it was securely attached, she put the chain with its key pendant around her neck. All that was visible was the ends of the chain itself. The key and most of the pendant chain was hidden beneath the reveres of her blouse collar. Of course, the silk culottes that she wore had no pockets, so she had no choice but to wear it around her neck. However, once she changed back into her uniform, there were pockets in both her jacket and her slacks in which to place the key and its chain, if she wished. Still, it did feel comfortable around her neck…..

It had never occurred to the Doctor that Catherine might wish to return the TARDIS key as soon as they were on their way back to the Eye. He had always intended for her to keep it. Perhaps he was being optimistic, a characteristic that seemed a bit foreign to him these days, but he was convinced that she would eventually choose to accept his invitation to travel with him. He guessed that she was tempted, as he saw her initial hesitation when he made the invitation. But he was not surprised that her responsibilities held her back from acceptance immediately. He wanted Catherine to accept his invitation to travel in the TARDIS, but he would not ask her a second time. She must be the one to think it through, logically and instinctively, and then agree or disagree. He just hoped that this encounter with the Rani hadn’t made her decide towards the latter. However, it hadn’t occurred to him that his own behaviour might also have some bearing on her eventual decision.

Over the last few hours, Catherine had had a lot of ideas to consider. For instance, there was the result of her ‘interview’. It would probably be another week or more before she knew the exact outcome and what penalty she would have to pay for her travels with the Doctor without permission while on assignment. She knew that it didn’t matter to her local area commander that she had learned a lot during that time. It also didn’t matter that much of this information contributed directly towards the solution to the situation at the Eye. However, this wasn’t important. This was the way the agency worked. Catherine understood this; she worked her whole career knowing this.

She knew that her job was secure, still she was prepared to pay whatever penalty was selected for her under the circumstances. After all, her logic told her, according to the agency rules she had transgressed by not seeking permission to travel with the Doctor, even more so since he was an alien. But she was not sorry that she had – quite the reverse, in fact! Catherine would not have changed that trip for anything, even if she had been offered promotion. The Doctor had shown her another side to herself that she had long thought of as hidden or gone forever. And she liked to think that she had shown him a slightly different side to himself as well. “Unlikely,” she thought, regretfully, “but then again, it could be possible.”

The Doctor was correct in his guess about Catherine’s response to the temptation of TARDIS travel. But the meeting with the Rani had tempered her response significantly. Catherine needed to clarify a few things in her mind about travels with him and for him to understand her perspective a bit more. She knew that he would not like some of her questions, but she needed to have his answers to them before she could consider she was comfortable enough with the travel to delegate her responsibilities. Once that was achieved to her satisfaction, she could accept his invitation, if she wished. She turned towards him and decided to start with a more general question.

“Doctor, it occurs to me that if the Rani has been restricted to one place and one time, how does she organise the contracts with her clients?”

The Doctor looked across his shoulder at Catherine and answered, “She attracted her clients by advertising her business through the transmat transmissions. I imagine she sent out self-updating advertisements placed on the space web to key times and places. The contracts would be arranged verbally then confirmed by exchange of details by transmat; similarly for the products and their payment. Her clients were probably not even aware that a temporal as well as spatial transfer was taking place.”

Catherine nodded and replied, “Probably not, if they were never actually meeting her.” She turned back to focus on the console in front of her as she tried to decide how she could politely broach her next question to him. This calculating method of his used on the Rani; provoking her into kissing him passionately and then returning the kiss with equal passion, despite his disgust and dislike of her and her experimentation on other life forms. Looking at both the Rani and the Doctor made her think that Time Lords must be quite ruthless in their methods to obtain their objectives, regardless of their motivation – in his case, the gaining of information important in the investigation. While her instinct for the out of place indicated to her that this was unusual, her logic indicated that he possibly could be quite ruthless if the need was there. Logically, this latent ruthlessness could still sit quite comfortably alongside the man she had travelled to and from Node Two with, without diminishing him at all.

Although Catherine recognised the strong pull of the emotional bond she had with the Doctor, strangely enough no less strong for her acknowledgement of his ruthlessness, it was not emotion that was going to sway her decision one way or the other. At least not without a strong logical reason as well. Logic and emotion were both telling her to accept his invitation – she would learn so much from travels through time and space and have opportunities that she could never have in her work. But while her logic was clear, there would always be a niggling doubt from an emotional perspective because of this ruthlessness. His past relationship with the Rani was none of her business. It did not concern her. But his use of the Rani did. There was no way she could think of to ask him about it without risking him misunderstanding her reason. “I’ll just have to take the risk and ask anyway,” she thought. She turned back to him to find that he had been watching her coming to her decision. There was a serious, yet somehow understanding, expression in his eyes as he looked back at her…..

The Doctor was surprised that Catherine only had one question for him about their meeting with the Rani. From his knowledge of her, he knew she wouldn’t have approved of his unorthodox methods of obtaining information from the Rani – either personally or professionally. He did wonder why she hadn’t queried him on it. Surely, she realised that whole interlude between him and the Rani was for show – on both sides. The kiss was genuinely passionate and she reacted to it exactly as he had intended, but the Rani no more cared for him any more than he cared for her. “Maybe, that’s the problem,” the Doctor thought. “Catherine doesn’t realise that…..”

Seeing the serious look on the Doctor’s face, Catherine asked, with as little emotion in her voice as she could manage, “Doctor, one thing does puzzle me about our meeting with the Rani. Knowing what you thought of her and her exploits, I can’t quite understand why you chose to manipulate her that way. It just seems a bit ruthless to me.”

The Doctor, seeing the puzzled look on her face, replied, “It does, doesn’t it? But if it takes a little ruthlessness to obtain information from a ruthless enemy, doesn’t that make it logical, if not acceptable? In your work, haven’t you ever been slightly ruthless in your pursuit of a criminal?”

“Possibly. But to manipulate her feelings.....” Catherine started to reply.

The Doctor interrupted her to say, coldly, “She doesn’t have any real feelings to manipulate, Catherine. As I told you on the way to meet her, the Rani is a woman of absolutely no conscience at all. She sees other life forms as only subjects for her experiments. Oh, she is attractive in appearance and can be very charming when she wants to be. But, I remember seeing a description of her in the Academy newspaper review of the graduating students from my year. She was summed up succinctly and accurately as ‘beautiful, but deadly’.” He paused to let Catherine take in that information before he added, quietly, “Catherine, I do have a conscience and feelings, despite the capacity for ruthlessness, when necessary. But so, I think, do you.”

Catherine didn’t comment on his remark because she had to admit to herself that he was right. She did have a capacity for ruthlessness in her work. Put that way, her niggling emotional doubt disappeared. She was satisfied that he had not knowingly manipulated any feelings that the Rani may have still had for him. So she really had no further reason to hold back from accepting his invitation to travel in the TARDIS with him. Both this trip and the trip to and from Node Two had given her a glimpse of an equal camaraderie that, despite the solidity of her team, did not exist in her work for Central Orion Protection and Security. This and the temptation of all that new knowledge she could gain and the challenges she would meet while travelling through time and space were really of more importance to her than whether or not her team responsibilities should be delegated or not. The opportunity might never be offered to her again and she knew she would regret it all her life if she didn’t grab it with both hands while she could. There was no time like the present.

“Doctor,” Catherine said. “That invitation to travel further than I’ve ever gone before; to solve the universe’s problems; to take up those challenges in time and space in the TARDIS – is the invitation still open?”

“Oh, yes,” the Doctor replied, his serious expression being replaced by one of his illuminating smiles.

“I just need to make one thing clear, though, Doctor,” Catherine continued, seriously. “This would have to be an equal partnership, Doctor. I’m not travelling as some ‘bit of fluff’ or as an apprentice. If I travel it is because I can contribute in a tangible way to the task at hand.” She paused, before adding, tentatively, “And, for some reason, I’ve come to regard you as a friend.”

“Catherine,” the Doctor replied, gently, “I wouldn’t have invited you under any other circumstances. Does this mean you are accepting my challenge then?”

“Yes,” she responded with a smile that made her hazel eyes shine.

“Fantastic!” he replied.

Catherine did have one more question to ask, though. “Doctor, how were you described in the Academy newspaper?”

The Doctor thought about whether he should tell her or not, but then decided, why not? He said, “‘a tendency to become emotionally attached and to see things from the alien perspective’ – not appreciated where I come from!”

Catherine laughed. He just nodded in agreement and grinned cheekily. Although his eyes were twinkling mischievously.

At least they were until he heard the strange sound. “That doesn’t sound right,” he said, in a puzzled voice, half to himself, half to Catherine. Catherine couldn’t hear whatever it was he was referring to; human hearing wasn’t sensitive enough. But she knew it was important because the Doctor suddenly sprang out of the chair and dashed to the console scanner. His face looked decidedly grim. All traces of his cheeky grin from a few moments ago had disappeared as if they had never been there. She realised that this could be a serious problem.

Catherine moved to stand beside him, asking, “Doctor, what’s happened? Can I help?”

The Doctor was too intent on the ever-changing readings on the scanner to look at her, but he did explain very briefly what their situation was. “Not a big problem,” he replied. After a brief pause, he continued, in a little bit too much of an off-handed manner, “Nothing you can help with, Catherine. Just a small course correction required. Can be tricky though when travelling in vortex…..” Without waiting for her to comment, the Doctor moved around the console making a few quick adjustments – a flick of a switch here, a turn of a knob there – then back to check the scanner again.

Catherine’s instinct for the irrational and out of place was niggling at her. Instinctively, she knew that there really was a big problem and she was determined to find out what it was. If she was to be travelling with him, she needed to be fully included in these things, not shut out like a mere tourist would be. Curbing her irritation, she asked, “Why is the course correction required? It was fine until you heard that sound. So what’s the real problem, Doctor?” As he didn’t reply, she attempted to solve the puzzle herself. The only reason she could think of for a sudden course correction was to avoid a collision. She said, “The only reason I can think of for a sudden course correction like that would be if the TARDIS was in danger of collision. But that doesn’t happen when travelling in vortex – does it?”

The Doctor thought for a minute. Sometimes it was a pity that she was so perceptive, but he did owe her the correct explanation. She wasn’t going to like it, but after all she did ask for it! He stood back from the scanner and straightened up, his arms folded across his chest. Looking in her direction, he explained, “The TARDIS isn’t in danger of a physical collision, Catherine. Physical collisions can happen, but are easily avoided, just like overtaking any other type of traffic. Easy.” He gestured with one hand towards the scanner.

While the Doctor paused to choose his next words carefully, Catherine asked, “Why is the correction tricky, then?”

He replied, “Because the collision isn’t a physical one.” Before she asked anything further, he explained, “The TARDIS was heading for a temporal collision. Temporal collisions are unpredictable. I think I’ve managed to avoid it, but these things are not precise, so the scanner needs to be watched.” The Doctor unfolded his arms and turned back to watch it, his frown deepening.

Catherine wondered which effects of a temporal collision – she assumed from the words that that meant some type of intersection of timelines in the vortex – could make the Doctor frown so deeply. But before she asked, he said, without turning to face her, “Avoiding temporal collisions depends on from where and when they originate, so the timeline can be judged accurately.”

“Do you know where and when this one comes from?” Catherine asked.

The Doctor turned to her and replied, “Yep. It was a farewell gift from the Rani – we destroyed her transmats, she used her TARDIS to generate a time wave into the vortex to try to cut us off.” He thought, “I should have seen that one coming. But I didn’t. This regeneration still hasn’t recovered from the emotional shock, as yet.” Outwardly, he sighed and then said, cheerfully, “We should be arriving back in your common room soon, Catherine.”

Catherine put the gold fashion sandals back on her feet and returned to the TARDIS wardrobe room. She took one last look at herself in the long mirror before she changed out of the culottes. For her return to the regional operations site at the Eye, she knew that it would present a much more professional appearance if she reverted back to her dress uniform. The slacksuit and boots of the uniform were smart and fashionable and suited her, but they were still part of a uniform, albeit a dress uniform. But she adored the cinnamon and gold-coloured silk culottes that the TARDIS had made available to her, too. Knowing she couldn’t be seen by anyone, she allowed herself a little ‘teenage’ indulgence by swishing the culottes from side-to-side. She knew it would seem silly in a grown woman, particularly a sergeant, but she had always adored flowing dresses and pantsuits, particularly when they were made of such a beautiful silk as these culottes were. Silk to her had always seemed to be a sensuous fabric and she loved the feel of it against her skin. She always thought that with something like that she could pretend that she was sensuous too. Catherine shook herself out of her daydream and quickly changed back into her uniform. She was just about to leave the room when she remembered that the gold clip in her hair was definitely not regulation, so needed to be removed. Quickly doing that and then tidying her hair into a style more suitable for her professional appearance, she left for the console room.

As she returned to the console room, the Doctor was bent over the console cross-validating the spatial and temporal coordinates as a result of the course correction in the time vortex. To Catherine, he did not look pleased with the result. His brow was creased into a deep furrow and his jaw was set in a hard line. She knew something was wrong, so walked up to him and crisply asked, “Doctor, what’s happened?” He didn’t even turn to look at her. But he did reply, in a completely emotionless voice which Catherine correctly guessed meant that he was angry and trying hard to keep a lid on his emotion.

“Catherine, the spatial coordinates remain constant, but there has been a temporal shift from the course correction in vortex.” He folded his arms and turned to her, adding, “I’ve adjusted it as much as I can, but I can’t bring it any closer without the TARDIS being at risk of collision again. We will return to the common room just before tea, just not on the same day.” Before Catherine could reply, the Doctor explained that this meant they would be arriving exactly seventy-two hours (in Earth terms) later than originally planned. He changed his mood, suddenly, as he tried to put a positive and cheerful face on the situation. But to Catherine, he didn’t sound convincing. And he knew she wasn’t convinced.

“Bloody hell,” Catherine thought in frustration. This delay meant she was going to have some fast explaining to do, if she was to keep her reputation intact, especially considering that the commander hadn’t exactly given permission for her to re-enter the TARDIS. If they had arrived back on the same day they had left, no-one would have noticed. But three days later would raise some eyebrows at the very least. Since the interview, while she was guaranteed her liberty and status and privileges, everything she did was potentially under scrutiny – at least, it was until his verdict was returned. But Catherine realised the delay couldn’t be helped. The solution to the problems at the Eye was, and always had been, her main focus. Important information had been obtained from the visit to the Rani that could not have been obtained otherwise. Catherine’s conscience was clear, but she didn’t quite know what to say to the Doctor.

As the TARDIS started to materialise in the common room in the same place that it had left from, something occurred to her. She walked down the ramp towards the outer TARDIS door and asked, “Doctor, did you expect that I was going to accept your invitation?” Then the 'penny dropped'. He had probably assumed from her travelling with him to see the Rani that she had accepted his offer informally anyway. A frown creased her brow as she thought of him taking her acceptance for granted.

“But, I didn’t expect it, Catherine,” the Doctor replied, grinning as he joined her at the TARDIS door. His blue eyes twinkled in amusement at her reaction. The grin changed into one of his illuminating smiles before he continued, “It was always your choice. But I didn’t think, when you thought it through logically, that you would be able to resist the opportunity for the trip of a lifetime!” He opened the TARDIS door and they both stepped out into the common room, to face the expected furore…..

(* To be continued….. *)