Ocean of Stars

This story is from a contest that was run by Big Finish for inclusion in their Doctor Who story collection. I didn’t win. Yet, while this may never see print, I am rather proud of my first (and probably last) entry into the Doctor Who universe. The story will make much more sense to people who have read the New Adventures books published in the 90s.

A Doctor Who Story (Featuring the 7th Doctor, Ace & Benny)

I was five when my father took me to visit his dying brother. My father never talked about the family he left behind to start his life in the city. But when the letter arrived, barely legible, written in the shaking scrawl of an adult who never had much need for writing, he looked at me intently. Lips pursed slightly, like when he worked on our finances, he announced in a too loud voice that started my baby sister crying, “We are closing next week and I’m taking Johan to see his uncle.” I saw that he was calculating our financial losses, but there was another entry on the balance sheet, something desperately important I had never seen in my father’s eyes. The flames from the fire reflected in a single tear on his cheek. “Before it’s too late. Aye, a boy should meet his uncle before it’s too late.”

The Silent Reef was anything but silent. In the decade since my parent’s deaths, the city had begun to eat itself. Organized crime, extortion, drugs: the decay of a city discarded by the powers that be. Once diplomats and ambassadors had eaten my father’s food. Now, I served watery beer and cheap wine to brutal men and women who lived only to profit from the pain of others. My sister fled three years ago to the arms of a handsome Petty Officer in the Krim’ean Navy. Leaving me with the tavern and the bills and no way out but to sell what my father’s legacy. The thought made my stomach boil. On the other hand, watching an unending series of bar brawls, drug deals, and extortion rackets take place in my father’s tavern made me want to hit my head against something very, very hard.

That night the Reef was loud, but with an undercurrent of violence like a knife scraping bone. I unlocked the drawer where I keep my old Glock-Harmon AI-F/450. The two-in-one model, it sported a flechette chamber (broken when I bought it, but fixed enough to carry one round of 500 needles) as well as a sonic pulse generator that, fully charged, could stun a rhinosouraus rex into unconsciousness with no permanent tissue damage, just one hell of a bruise. I told Phreddi, my dishwasher-slash-bouncer, to keep an eye out. He sniffed loud through his big porcine snout and grunted, “Aye boss, smells like trouble. You tell them girls they keep close to the bar.”

“Them girls” were my wait staff, not a single one under thirty and most looked ten years older than their age. But they were good people, struggling hard and keeping mostly honest. They were all staying close to the bar. They felt it, too. I was more worried about Jhen, my bus boy. A sweet lad of fourteen, he was unable to conceive of people hurting other people. The gangs loved to mock him with a smile and watch him grin and blush like they were his best friends. He bobbed and weaved through the crowd, eyes glowing with goodwill as he gathered empty mugs and plates. He was the only person who was not alert, tensed with fear, or poised to unleash violence. His obliviousness would get him killed.

Fletcher was there, of course, as he always was when things got bad. His toad-like body disguising one of the strongest men in the city, and his fat, stupid-looking face disguising one of the most brilliant, if perverted, of the crime bosses. His eyes were cold grey, like dirty ice. Something was going on. Something worth killing for and it was happening in my father’s tavern and there wasn’t a damned thing I could do except try to protect myself and my people. Fletcher was licking his lips and sweating with desire. The air in the Reef grew thick with danger. Everyone was keyed up, hair-triggered, and ready to react, so when the door opened to reveal three strangers, it felt like the entire bar was ready to pounce. Off-worlders in a bar that catered to locals were either victims or threats. These three were definitely not victims. The girl on the right was young, but her military training was obvious. Poised but not cocky, her capacity for violence was apparent. She did not look happy. The woman on the left was older, and had an academic look to her. Her grin was sharp and her eyes shone with the same light that I saw in serious drunks when they knew, just knew, they had all the answers. She would never ever back down, no matter the odds.

Then there was him. Small, even impish, he cocked his head to the left like he was listening to particularly pleasant concerto nobody else could hear. His voice purred, and he spoke softly but clear enough for all to hear, “Any room at the inn? Or is that port in a storm? Ahhh, fish in a reef is more like it, eh, Ace?”

He rolled his “r”s so much they seemed alive, scampering through the air and dancing a jig on the bar. He seemed not so much dangerous as powerful, but it was a power that seemed to reside, somehow, not in him but through him.

The soldier-girl, Ace, frowned fiercer and moved forward with a protective, if annoyed movement.

“Oi, we are not a zoo, people.”

She set herself in front and to one side of the smiling man, scanning the room like a bodyguard. The other woman then spoke, grinning widely: “Move along people, there’s nothing to see here, move along.” She laughed, enjoying a joke none of us understood.

No one laughed. She shrugged and moved forward, taking a similarly protective stance toward the man. I didn’t understand. It was obvious that if we all started shooting while the kitchen exploded, and a nest of viperines slithered in through the floor while a force-seven hurricane raged, that this small, smiling man would be the last, and probably only, person standing.

They moved to an empty table near the back and conversations began again. Strained and subdued, but less violent than before. As if the presence of these three helped resolve fear into something less combustible. I thought that the worst had passed.

I was wrong.

I don’t remember the business of arranging a berth on the riverboat heading seaways, or whether my mother and sister stayed home or visited her family, or how excited I was to be on an adventure. Was I scared to be leaving the five-square-kilometer world that, until then, was my whole world? Was I grateful to be seeing something more, something of the bigger world? I don’t remember the first two days on the riverboat. Although there are times, when walking in the market and smelling a particular combination of odors, of spices and human sweat, fish and rotting fruit, that I’m five years old again and standing at the bow of boat heading toward the ocean.

Fletcher’s enforcer, Dremar, came in. Oozing fear, he stumbled, then drew himself up and approached Fletcher slowly. Reaching Fletcher, he paused. Then, shaking, he whispered something in Fletcher’s ear. Fletcher went red with anger, then pale with fury. Nobody breathed. Fletcher’s swollen fingers drummed lightly on the table and his lips pulled back in a grimace so tight you’d think he was trying to flay his own face. He turned his massive bulk to look at the strangers. The little man smiled and doffed his hat like you see in old holovids. Despite the encroaching violence, I grinned at his insouciance. The joy of seeing someone stand up to Fletcher was infectious. At the same time, I put my hand on my gun, and pulled it from the drawer, a heavy feeling in my stomach.

Fletcher nodded once and only a fraction of an inch. Suddenly the room was full of drawn weapons, all pointing at the three strangers.

“Ace. Benny. I do believe Mr. Fletcher is angry.”

Ace smiled coldly, her eyes measuring vectors and plans of attack. Benny looked tired but she swigged from a flask and her eyes were hot and bright. I flicked the safety off, making sure the weapon setting was on sonic pulse.

Ace’s voice was almost bored. “Now?”

Triggers were being squeezed. His reply was as cold as space, dark as a singularity.

“Now.”

I don’t know why I reacted so fast, but I was down behind the bar, covering my head when the series of small pops went off, releasing bright flashes of light and blinding nearly everyone. Gunfire and screams. Tables overturned and curses shouted. An animal noise, like the bellowing of some enraged beast, emerged from Fletcher. Then the pops stopped and I stood up, gun raised. There were at least three people on the floor bleeding from flechette wounds. Everyone else was clutching their faces and screaming for fear of permanent blindness. Fletcher stood, tears streaming down his face, but sighted enough to aim his gun at the unperturbed stranger. Benny still sat at the table, drinking from a large flask and looking straight at me with a dark scowl. She raised her flask as if in a toast.

Ace stood next to the small man, seemingly unarmed.

“I can’t believe I let you talk me into doing this without the proper gear,” she said.

He smiled, though his eyes were sad.

“There was a time, Ace, when making some nice bright explosions would have satisfied you.”

“A long time ago and a galaxy far, far away, Professor.”

Her voice reminded me of zotl berries in the fall, heavy and bitter.

“Yes, well. I think our Mr. Fletcher is going to put his gun away, gather up his cronies,” again, his rolled “r”s purred like a giant cat, “and leave this fine establishment. Isn’t that so, Mr. Fletcher.” It was not a question.

Fletcher growled, “Who are you?”

“Oh dear, where are my manners?” He patted his pockets as if searching for them. “Nevermind. I’m the Doctor. These are my friends Ace and Benny. And you, I believe, were just leaving.”

He tipped his hat, dismissed Fletcher with a flick of his eyes, and sat down. Fletcher practically gagged on the insult and his gun hand shook with rage. Suddenly, there was a moment of complete silence and I saw movement to my right, about ten feet behind Fletcher. It was Jehn, blindly crawling forward. He hit a table and uttered a small, scared mewling sound. His confusion was greater than his fear, but both were moving him forward toward Fletcher. Fletcher sensed the motion, then the silence ended and the wounded started moaning and screaming again and I knew that within the next three seconds, Fletcher would turn and kill Jehn.

Fletcher’s turn toward Jehn was away from me, and in that split second my gun was aimed and my thumb rested on the small switch that, with one light flick, would change the gun from the sonic pulse to the flechette setting. For the barest of moments, my eyes shifted to the Doctor’s sitting form. He was staring straight at me, his chin resting on his hands resting on his umbrella. His eyes were dark, sad, and so very deep. I looked away, flicked the switch, and pulled the trigger.

On the third day of our journey, having left the river for the ocean, my father held my hand and gently rubbed my back as I triumphed over my seasickness with the clever strategy of throwing up every meal I had ever eaten. After my stomach finally settled, we stood together and breathed in the deep cleanness of the ocean air. As the sun set, kissing the horizon, the sky exploded in bands of gold and crimson. The ocean’s deep amethyst color shimmered and began to sparkle with a million points of light, like the ocean was full of stars and we were sailing across the infinity of space itself. I gasped in surprise and shock at the illusion, and felt my father’s hand upon my right shoulder, squeezing slightly to let me know he understood.

“‘Tis a sight indeed, boy. A sight indeed.”

Colored with loss and regret, his voice sounded far away, like he was drowning.

That memory is the best way I can describe The Doctor’s eyes: an ocean of drowning stars.

There was more blood than I expected. I stood for a long time, gun raised, knuckles white on the grip, the taste of bile in my throat. A cold sweat on my skin as the Doctor flashed angry eyes at me.

“Ace,” his purr turned to a growl, “I told you to disable the . . .”

“I did.”

Benny came to my side and gently took the gun from my hand. My knees buckled and I fell forward, catching myself on the bar. She examined the gun.

“Looks like he jerry-rigged it for one small round of flechettes.”

The Doctor’s voice was like a whip.

“He wasn’t supposed to do that.”

Benny helped me to the floor, held my arm for a moment as I tried to catch my breath and take in what I had done, what they were saying.

“You going to be ok?”

I gulped air. I had just killed a man. An evil man to be sure, but still a man. The blood.

“I. Yeah. I mean, but wait, how did he know . . . what did he mean wasn’t supposed to . . . how did he know it was broken?”

She exhaled sharply, sat next to me, reached under the bar and grabbed a bottle of my best whiskey, the forty-year old blend.

“D’ya mind?”

I shook my head, she grinned again.

“Well, there’s knowing and then there’s knowing. As much as he knows, I sometimes think he mistakes the two. Or maybe I do. You know?”

Her smile and the gritty humor in her eyes almost made me laugh.

“Probably not.”

“Yeah. Well.”

She stood. Reaching into her pocket, she retrieved a credicard and dropped it to my lap.

“If you need to run, that’ll do you for a year or so. We’ve gotta go. People to see, places to meet, evil to defeat.” She smiled, winked, and walked around the bar. By the time I was able to stand, the Doctor, Ace, and Benny were gone.

Fletcher’s bright, red blood was soaking into the floor like a sunset soaking into night. I thought of my father and of that sunset so many years ago. Slipping the credicard into my pocket, I walked into the night. I felt alive but numb. Distant. Like I was flying and drowning at the same time. Like my father’s voice. Like the Doctor’s eyes.

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