Maria was in the front seat of the lime green Figaro. It was blissfully quiet in the back. No boys. It was just her and Sarah Jane this Saturday afternoon. Clyde and Luke were at an all day five-a-side football tournament – Clyde to compete and Luke to cheer him on. Clyde had been quite insistent that Sarah Jane and Maria were not needed. It was a ‘man thing’.
“Man thing!” Sarah Jane laughed. “You know, gender stereotyping like that should have gone out twenty years ago.”
“I don’t care,” Maria said. “Five-a-side is boring. They’re welcome to it.”
“Well, yes,” Sarah Jane agreed. “But it’s the principle of the thing. If we don’t stand up to it, they just walk all over us. It’s no better anywhere else in the universe, either. I remember when I met the queen of Peladon. She thought, because she was a woman, she should just look pretty and let her MALE advisors do the thinking. Boy, did I put her right.”
“At least The Doctor’s not like that,” Maria ventured.
“He has his moments. When I was with him, I don’t think he once made a cup of tea for himself. Dragged me all over the place, never a thought. And then expecting me to pass him his tools, his zeus plugs and his temporal ram or whatever it was. And you notice that he gave me a sonic lipstick. Says it all, doesn’t it! He has a screwdriver. I get a lipstick. That place where they make sonic tools – Villengard – I bet it has an aisle marked ‘boys toys’.”
“Well, we both have sonic screwdrivers now,” Maria pointed out. “He got it right eventually. As for Clyde and Luke, they’re just boys. They’ll learn when they actually get girlfriends. And meanwhile, visiting somebody in a sheltered housing project is still better than watching Clyde kick a football around.”
“Thanks for coming along,” Sarah Jane told her. “I know it’s not the most exciting way to spend Saturday evening. Although… I think you might be interested in the old chap we’re visiting. U.N.I.T. asked me to pop along and see him. He contacted them and they were going to dismiss him at first. They thought he was just a daft old man. But when they checked him on their computers, he was flagged with a Code Nine-B.”
“Ohhh!” Maria was impressed. “He’s a former associate of The Doctor!”
Sarah Jane was also impressed. Maria had learnt a lot in the past couple of years. She really did plan to join Torchwood when she had graduated from university. Jack Harkness had as good as promised her a job with them. And Maria intended to hold him to it. Clyde and Luke were interested, too. But they WERE only boys yet. Their heads were full of football and skateboarding. Maria was the one who was planning ahead.
Sarah Jane wasn’t sure whether to be proud of steering her towards a unique career or ashamed to have dragged her into such a murky, dangerous and secretive word.
Torchwood, U.N.I.T., Sarah Jane Smith, and somewhere out there, that incredible man who connected them all together – The Doctor. All of them were working to protect the planet from alien harm thanks to his influence over them. Maria was just the latest and youngest to be touched by his zeal to make wrong things right.
Yes, on the whole it was something to be proud of, she decided.
“Here we are,” she said as she stopped the car in a parking space in a small cul-de-sac of modern bungalow hosues. They were of the sort of identical red-brick style with the same doors and windows that put Sarah Jane in mind of that song from the 1970s about houses ‘made of ticky tack that all look the same’. But it was a neat, clean street, and on this late summer afternoon there was a pleasant smell of newly cut grass where the communal lawns had been recently mown. Sheltered housing for the elderly, with wardens that did basic cleaning and brought meals to those who couldn’t cook for themselves and were on hand in an emergency.
The man they were coming to see was still quite agile and capable, even though he must have been in his 70s. he opened the door on a chain at first, of course, as anyone living alone would. Sarah Jane showed him a card that identified her as a U.N.I.T. agent and he opened the door and ushered them both in.
“Thank you for coming,” he said. “I was afraid that they might think I’m just a doddering old fool. It was all right in the old days. But this lot, now, all fresh-faced computer whiz-kids with no common sense. And no respect for their elders, either.”
“I’m afraid you’re probably right,” Sarah Jane told him, realising that she, also, though a good twenty years younger than her host, had too many hankerings for the ‘old days’.
“Goodness,” he said, looking at Maria. “When I said young… I didn’t mean that young.”
“Oh, Maria isn’t in U.N.I.T.,” Sarah Jane assured him. “She’s a family friend. She helps me out, though. She’s a very bright girl, and plenty of common sense.”
“Do sit down, both of you,” Mr Chesterton said. “There, by the back window is nice. I’ll make a pot of tea.”
“Thank you,” Sarah Jane replied. She sat in one of the armchairs set by a big French window looking out at the back of the houses. There was a long net curtain across the window that meant it was possible to sit here and look out and see everything, but in daytime, at least, anyone outside would not know they were being watched.
“Local nosy parker?” Maria suggested. “Watching all his neighbours.”
“An old man who doesn’t get out much, living life through other people’s activities,” Sarah Jane countered. She looked at the view. It wasn’t particularly wonderful. There was a piece of the same communal lawn as at the front, and a tarmac covered lane before a high wooden fence. Beyond that was a railway line. A train went past as she looked, though the window was double glazed and there was no sound. She looked down the lane, but there was nothing there. Another piece of fence cut across it, blocking it off.
Nothing at all at the end of the lane.
“Sarah Jane, look!” Maria drew her attention away from the window, to the old-fashioned glass-fronted cabinet where the old man kept various ornaments and memories of his life. He had been a teacher. A very good teacher judging by the awards and scrolls and testimonials in the cabinet along with pictures of him at various times of his life, sitting with smiling groups of school children in group photographs.
There were some family pictures, too. A dark haired woman featured in a lot of them – his wife, perhaps.
In pride of place, on top of the cabinet, was the picture Maria was so excited about. It was a group of four people. Mr Chesterton in his twenties was one of them. So was the dark haired woman, as well as an old man and a girl whose clothes screamed 1960s. they were all stood in front of what anyone else would call an old fashioned police telephone box, but which Sarah Jane and Maria, and a select few other people on planet Earth would call The TARDIS.
“The old man… he’s The Doctor?” Maria asked. “Is that…”
“Yes,” Sarah Jane confirmed. “That’s what he looked like long before I knew him. The girl is his granddaughter.” Maria looked puzzled by that. “I don’t know. There’s a file at U.N.I.T. that I read once, with the old Brigadier’s permission. Very secret. That’s all the information they have. He never told me anything. He doesn’t talk about his past much. Well, nothing personal, anyway. He could go on for hours about how he taught Leonardo to draw or Bach to play the organ.”
“He probably did, too,” said Mr Chesterton as he brought the tea through. “You knew him, too?”
“I’ve met, him,” Maria said, establishing her credentials. “But Sarah Jane travelled with him for a while. Did you… were you one of his friends?” She left the cabinet and came to sit on a leather padded footstool that she pulled up between the armchairs as Mr Chesterton poured tea and talked about being a TARDIS traveller, being one of the first humans to have met a Dalek, something Sarah Jane had some experiences of, too, and other fascinating adventures.
“I would have liked to have seen the old boy again,” Mrs Chesterton concluded with a sigh. “How’s he doing? He must be very old now…”
Maria looked at Sarah Jane, wondering what she would say. The Doctor they knew now was a young, agile man. It was almost impossible to believe he was the same man as the one in that picture. If Sarah Jane had not shown her pictures of two different Doctors she had known and explained regeneration, she would not have believed it.
“People on his planet age differently,” Sarah Jane answered him. “He’s quite sprightly, really.” She glanced at that group photograph. Ian Chesterton as a young, healthy, active man, had been a friend of the old, white haired man who carried a walking stick. Now The Doctor was young, and he was an old man. And it seemed unfair to tell him that. But Mr Chesterton seemed happy with that answer.
“Never did meet him again. But he remembered us. When Barbara… my lady wife… died… He sent a condolence card and flowers. And every year… on her birthday… a fresh bunch of flowers – beautiful ones – on her grave. His signature on the card – The Doctor. He never forgets.”
“That’s…” Sarah Jane thought that didn’t sound at all like The Doctor as she knew him. He wouldn’t remember anything unless it suited him. Either he got more considerate as he got older – or younger – or his conscience had pricked him and he spent a very busy day visiting florists and travelling from one year to the next to leave the flowers.
Sarah Jane rather suspected the second. It seemed much more like him.
“Yes, he’s a very generous man,” she lied. “But… anyway… as nice as it is to reminisce about The Doctor, perhaps you should tell me why you called U.N.I.T.”
“There’s an alien ship down there at the end of the lane,” said Mr Chesterton, pointing to the fence that cut across it. “It’s hidden, cloaked they call it on the TV programmes. But it’s there. Just watch… He comes in and out all the time. He might be an alien with a spaceship, but he doesn’t seem to know that net curtains are see through from the inside. I’ve seen him. There… look…”
They looked. A man walked up the lane. He walked slowly, and he was looking around in a way best described as ‘furtive’. He kept looking at something that was about the size of a video camera, but which he held in his hands more like a divining rod or a metal detector.
He reached the fence at the end of the lane and looked around again, carefully, as if making sure he was alone. then he swept his hand up and around in a big circle and stepped forward, disappearing as if the fence had opened up and closed around him.
“What?” Maria exclaimed. “How…”
“See what I mean,” said Mr Chesterton. “Cloaked ship. Though I’ve looked at the fence myself a couple of times and I can’t see anything.”
“I agree,” Sarah Jane said. “There’s no other explanation.”
“I first saw him three days ago,” Mr Chesterton said. “Coming and going through the fence as if it isn’t there. He’s an alien, I’m sure of it. Though what he’s doing here, I don’t know. Or if there are others.”
“He looked Human,” Maria said. Then she thought about that. So did the Slitheen that caused them so much trouble until they undid their zipper. Lots of things did.
The man appeared again, suddenly walking away from the fence as if he had not broken his stride. He still had his strange instrument with him. He walked back up the lane and they lost sight of him as he passed to the front of the houses.
“Quick, while he’s away, let’s have a look,” Maria said. Sarah Jane was enthusiastic to do the same. It is just what The Doctor would have done. But what about Mr Chesterton?
“I’m still faster on my feet than The Doctor used to be,” he said. “Come on then.” He stood up and opened the French window. They all stepped out and headed up the lane to where the fence cut it off. They could see behind it nothing but wasteland where some old terraced houses had been demolished and people had dumped rubbish despite a sign saying ‘no fly tipping.’
“Looks perfectly ordinary,” Sarah Jane said. “And yet…” She touched the fence. “There. Feel it. Do you feel it? There’s a very faint vibration just in this part of it.”
“Yes,” Maria agreed. “And it’s not the trains. Because this part, closer to the line, there’s nothing. It really feels like the fence, though. Not an invisible space ship.”
Sarah Jane pulled out her sonic screwdriver. Maria saw her and did the same. They both chose the same setting and aimed it at the place where the vibration was strongest. They were only slightly surprised when the air shimmered and a door opened in the fence. If they didn’t know better, they would have called it magic.
They stepped forward, through the door. They were too surprised by what they saw to worry when the door almost silently slid closed again.
“It’s a…” Maria began, staring around at a hexagonal room, each wall panelled with light wooden sections, except for the one where the door was, and another which had a big flat screen with a view of the lane and the backs of the houses. Their eyes turned from that to the hexagonal computer in the middle of the floor.
“It’s a TARDIS!” All three of them said that at once.
“It is,” Mr Chesterton said excitedly. “It really is a TARDIS. It’s different to the one I travelled in with The Doctor. But it is a TARDIS.”
“It’s not HIS TARDIS,” Sarah Jane insisted. “It couldn’t be. His doesn’t work properly. It’s stuck as a police box. But I thought… He said…”
“That his planet was gone and he was the only one left.”
“Yes,” Sarah Jane answered. “But they’re time travellers. This one must come from before the planet was gone, I suppose. It stands to reason. If they’re all travelling to different times and places, they must cross each other’s paths all the time. I’m only surprised they don’t meet themselves coming and going. But…”
“Put down your weapons and raise your hands,” said a voice. “Turn around slowly. I said put down your weapons.” They turned to see the alien with the furtive look standing in the open door. They hadn’t even heard it open again. He had what was obviously a gun of some sort in his hands. A futuristic space gun, probably firing rays of energy, but a gun.
“We don’t have any weapons,” Sarah Jane protested. “This is a sonic screwdriver. It’s a tool, not a weapon.”
“So is this,” Maria answered, waving hers.
“sonic screwdriver?” said the alien, moving closer and taking the two tools. He looked at both closely. “From the Villengard factory. They can be used as weapons. Laser mode is dangerous enough for a start. All three of you… get over there where I can see you – against that wall.”
“You’re a Time Lord,” Sarah Jane said. “And you’re pointing a gun at us. I thought your people were peaceful.”
“Be quiet,” the Time Lord replied. “You’re my prisoners. I don’t know which of you it is… the changeling I have been seeking. I knew there was a trace energy somewhere… I’ve been searching for days. I never expected you to walk into my TARDIS…” He went to the console and pressed several buttons. A yellow-red light beam enveloped the three prisoners. Then the Time Lord looked puzzled. “That can’t be right. Your DNA is Human. Completely Human. No changeling can be that fully integrated.”
“We’re Human,” Mr Chesterton said. “What else would we be? This is Earth, after all. You are the alien. Everyone else is Human.”
“Not quite everyone,” the Time Lord said. “Earth has been a sanctuary and refuge for humanoid races seeking peace and freedom for centuries. They live among you quietly. Most of them.”
“Ah, well, point taken,” Mr Chesterton conceded. “Come to think of it, I did know this old man and his granddaughter who lived in a police box in a junkyard.” He laughed softly at the memory. “But what is this about? Who are you, and why are you here?”
“Police box?” The Time Lord looked at them all more closely. Then he glanced at his console again. “Two of you have travelled in the time vortex. You’ve absorbed artron energy. You… you’re Human, but you knew I was a Time Lord. Humans don’t know of our world. Unless you’ve known…”
“The Doctor,” Maria said. “We all know him. Do you? If you do, then you know we’re not hostile. We’re not your enemy.”
The Time Lord laughed. “There are those on my world who think the one known as The Doctor is a dangerous radical, a troublemaker.”
“Those people are either liars or they don’t know him at all,” Sarah Jane replied. “And if you’re one of them…”
“I’m not,” he answered in a softer tone. “The Doctor is a great man. I owe him my life. I am Andred of the Celestial Intervention Agency. I am a loyal subject of Gallifrey.”
“Good. Then we’re all on the same side,” Sarah Jane said. “So why don’t you tell us what’s going on? You’re here to find somebody…. Obviously not us. But we can help.”
“I cannot involve humans in my work,” Andred replied.
“Oh, that DOES sound like him,” Mr Chesterton said. “Always assuming we’re too puny and stupid to understand.”
“Doesn’t it just!” Sarah Jane added. “Come on. You need us. How many days have you been here now? And Mr Chesterton has already spotted you. Suppose somebody else does? Or the creature you’re pursuing. You need us and our local knowledge.”
Andred seemed to consider that possibility.
“I am in pursuit of a dangerous creature who stole vital secret information from an ambassador of our world. I tracked him here, to this part of your planet. But the changeling took Human form. All I have found since are vague, unconnected traces, fleeting moments when his shield dropped.”
“So you do need local knowledge,” Sarah Jane said. “Mr Chesterton, are there any strangers in the neighbourhood? Apart from him, that is?”
“That wouldn’t help,” Andred said. “The creature is a Bacciyra. It will have taken the identity of a Human, as part of its disguise.
“Oh,” Maria groaned. “Oh, like a Slitheen? Wearing the skin?”
“No,” Andred answered. “A Bacciyra keeps its disguise alive… just… unconscious, while it feeds on its form and brain patterns. That’s what makes it so difficult. You would not notice a difference. Except… possibly a change of habits, a person who always behaved in a certain way might be behaving differently. An extrovert person being more secretive, perhaps.”
“Mr Holman!” Mr Chesterton suddenly exclaimed. Everyone looked at him. “Three doors down. He has a dog. He adored the animal. It lived in the house with him. The warden was always complaining about how there were hairs on the carpet, on the furniture. But for the past few days it’s been in a kennel under the carport, chained up. I’ve heard it whimpering at night. Poor thing.”
Everyone looked at each other.
“Mr Holman,” they all said together.
“You could be right,” Andred said. He turned to his console again and focussed what seemed to be a sort of lifesign detector. “Two lifesign patterns. Both appear Human. But one is weak.”
“Well, you’ve got the blaster,” Maria told him. “Get going.”
“We have to protect the host… the real Mr Holman, too,” Andred said. “But involving all of you…”
“There you go again,” Sarah Jane tutted. “Treating us humans like we’re stupid. Come on. I have an idea.”
It was exactly what the wardens in the sheltered housing project were meant to prevent. It was what the local community police warned the old people about.
Maria slipped around the back of the house, to the French door identical to the one they had come out of. She watched carefully until she saw the old man inside go to the front door, where Sarah Jane and Mr Chesterton had just knocked. Sarah Jane was going to tell Mr Holman that she was a journalist, researching the problems of Britain’s elderly under the present government. Mr Chesterton would vouch for her.
The sonic screwdriver opened the French door from the outside in a way that it was designed not to open. She stepped inside and adjusted the setting to lifesigns detector. She crept past the door to the hall where Sarah Jane and Mr Chesterton were still talking and found the kitchen. The signal pointed her to what she thought was just a cupboard.
It was a sort of utility room, with an ironing board and boxes piled up. And on the floor, lying on an old mattress, was the real Mr Holman. It had to be him. He looked ill. Maria wondered if the creature had fed him at all. He must have done something if keeping him alive was important. Or perhaps, when one Human life was gone it would just find another one.
There was a sort of helmet on his head, like a very big stereo headset. Maria reached and took it off. Mr Holman let out a scream. At the doorstep, the fake Mr Holman stopped talking and there were footsteps. But it was too late. Andred was there, now, standing between the kitchen and the hallway with his blast gun. Maria couldn’t see much more. But she heard Sarah Jane’s voice and the unique sound of the sonic screwdriver in laser mode, fired as a warning shot, perhaps, to prevent the creature from escaping.
“It’s over, foul creature,” said Andred and he fired the blaster in stun mode. Maria, didn’t see what happened next. A few moments later, Sarah Jane came to the utility room door and helped her to lift Mr Holman to his feet. Mr Chesterton brought him a glass of water as they made him comfortable on his own sofa. Maria glanced at the French door and saw Andred carrying something wrapped in an old blanket towards the fence at the end of the lane. It looked smaller than Mr Holman was, but she guessed it was the creature.
“It looked like a nasty version of ET,” Sarah Jane told her. “If you’re really curious Mr Smith probably has a picture of it in his database. Right now, we need to get Mr Holman to hospital. He’s very week, badly dehydrated and half starved. He doesn’t seem to remember anything, which is good.”
They arranged that. Of course, most of the neighbourhood came to their doors and windows to watch the ambulance. Afterwards, Sarah Jane and Maria came back to Mr Chesterton’s house, along with Mr Holman’s dog, which was nearly as wretched as he was. It cheered right up as it ate a half pound of sausages and drank from a big bowl of water.
“I’ll take care of him until Mr Holman’s well,” Mr Chesterton said. “He’ll be company.”
“That’s good,” Sarah Jane said. Then they all turned as Andred stepped in through the French doors.
“I am going now,” he said. “I just wanted to thank you for your help.” He looked at the dog curiously. It glanced at him and went on eating. “We don’t have dogs on my planet,” he said.
“That explains a lot about you Time Lords,” Sarah Jane replied, but with a smile. “Safe journey. And… if you see The Doctor… give him our love.”
“I will give him your regards,” Andred promised. “Goodbye.”
“Goodybe,” Sarah Jane told him. And he was gone. They all watched carefully. There was a brief, familiar noise, and a wind that came out of nowhere, blowing litter around. Then a shimmer, before the fence looked exactly the same. But they knew he was gone. Sarah Jane and Mr Chesterton both looked up in the sky and waved.
“Good journey,” they said.