Old Soldiers — a Doctor Who story
I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who since I was five years old, sitting too close to the TV every weeknight at 7 on PBS (WGBH in Boston). At that age, it scared the ever-living crap out of me (Sarah Jane’s android clone losing it’s face, anyone?) but I loved it. When I was around eight years old (I think), a friend of the family who knew what a budding young fan I was brought me my first piece of memorabilia from the show — a signed photo of Nicholas Courtney, the Brigadier, personalized to little ol’ me. He was, it turned out, a friend of a friend of a friend, and our friend came home from a trip out west with the treasure in tow. The Brigadier became my favorite character on the show. It didn’t take much to buy my loyalty.
Fast forward three(ish) decades: Doctor Who is set to return to the airwaves after an absence of sixteen years. I say to myself, “Well, if I ever had the chance to write an episode, it’d have to be one for the Brigadier.” Not that the opportunity was every going to come my way, of course, but it was a nice dream.
And then Nicholas Courtney died, and my hopes of ever seeing the Brigadier on Doctor Who disappeared (and don’t tell me he made it onto The Sarah Jane Adventures — that doesn’t count). I thought they did a lovely job of acknowledging his passing towards the end of David Tennant’s run. That should have been the end. And then there came “Death in Heaven” and the whole dead arising as Cybermen and oh my god what are they doing to the Brig?! I know it’s only a TV show, but I was livid. It felt like the producers were pissing on the man’s grave. Awful. And then I started thinking about the imaginary episode I would’ve written, and I decided it was time to give the man a better exit. So, here’s my stab at it. I don’t do fan fiction, well, ever. Probably won’t again after this. But here’s to you, Brigadier. And you, too, Mr. Courtney. Thanks for making an eight-year-old boy happy.
NB: I haven’t done much revision on this.
Old Soldiers (or, Another One Fades Away)
This story takes place somewhere after “Flatline” and before “Dark Water.” It completely mucks up the timeline. I don’t care.
It was somewhere between the dessert and the coffee when it dawned on Brigadier Sir Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart that perhaps Judith was ending their affair. It was their fifth date – dinner out, coat and tie required, and then there was to be an outing to the Barbican – and Judith had done most of the heavy conversational lifting, chatting gaily about her gardening club’s upcoming charity auction and her grandson’s first day of school. However, the weight of his preoccupation prevented her words from making any real sense. All he could hear were the doctor’s words cycling over and over.
“Damned unfair,” was all he could think. And somehow an entire dinner had passed by with him barely noticing. It was only as he lifted the last bite of trifle to his mouth that he noticed that Judith had grown quiet and stopped looking him in the eye.
“You heel,” he thought to himself. “It’s not her fault.”
And yet, Lethbridge-Stewart could not bring himself to speak.
Outside the restaurant, the two stood in uncomfortable quiet, waiting for the valet to bring his car around.
“So,” he said at last. “One of the Henry’s tonight, then, is it?”
Judith sighed and turned to him with a sad smile.
“I think,” she said, “that this is where I say goodbye.”
He braced himself for the inevitable.
“You’re a lovely man, Alistair,” she said. “And I’m glad Kate introduced us. You’re lucky to have a daughter like her looking out for your happiness. But you’re not ready for that, are you?”
He opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t make the words escape.
Judith kissed him on the cheek.
“Goodbye, Alistair. You can call me when you’re ready to move on,” she said. “But right now, I don’t have room for any more sadness in my life. I have enough of my own, already.”
And then she hired a taxi and went on her way, leaving him to drive himself home.
All along the back roads to the country house, Lethbridge-Stewart fell into the internal monologue that had become a grating and too-familiar soundtrack to his everyday comings and goings.
Doris has been dead and gone for ten years. Why can’t I move on? Why was I so desperate to retire? Did I really think endless games of mahjong with the boys at the old soldiers home was going to replace the excitement of a life with UNIT? But soldiering and alien fighting is a young man’s game and when did I get so old? And is it really going to end with a whimper?
And will he ever bother to come visit before it’s all over?
So entrenched was the Brigadier in his musings that he almost didn’t notice when the Bentley came to a dead stop of its own accord on the dark stretch of road through the Epping Forest, its power draining away. The blinding light that streamed from the sky down onto his immobile vehicle, however, snapped him out of his reverie and gave him a jolt of adrenaline.
His first thought was, “Bloody cliché. Is this someone’s idea of a joke?” As he felt the warmth of a strange energy begin to course through his body, that thought rapidly changed to, “This again?” which then quickly caromed to, “That’s more like it,” as he felt his body dissolve into the light.
He hasn’t felt this good in a long time. But there is very little time to appreciate the sense of renewed vigor. The street outside St. Paul’s is eerily quiet, until the moment the manhole cover flies up from its resting place. The Brigadier watches, swallowing the initial moment of panic, as the bland, silver face of the Cyberman rises out from its hiding place below the street.
“Delta pattern!” he calls out to the UNIT soldiers behind him. “On my signal, five rounds rapid!”
The TARDIS had remapped itself again.
“A little warning, next time!” the Doctor said, slapping his hands against the railings. “A little consultation, perhaps!”
The TARDIS hummed in reply.
“Tell me, at least, that you didn’t jettison the butterfly room.”
His grey and lanky frame stalked up and down unfamiliar, half-remembered corridors, ancient eyes under sharp brows taking in the ship’s new terrain.
“I love the butterfly room! I’ve been looking forward to the butterfly room all week! I said to myself, ‘Doctor, once you’ve got the near civil war amongst these vermiforms de-escalated and sorted out, you’ll have earned yourself a nice, relaxing day in the butterfly room.’ Now where is it?!”
The TARDIS chirped, a sound like an eight-bit cricket.
“Don’t you chirp at me!”
“Watch your tone with me, old girl. I’m not in the mood. I’m not the one redecorating without discussing it first!”
“Wait, why do I know this alarm?”
“This is an important alarm. Why is this an important alarm?”
The only answer was the wheezing, groaning sound of the TARDIS engines coming to life.
“And now we’re moving. There’s an important alarm, and now we’re moving and I’m not steering and . . .”
The full memory crashed into the wall at the front of his mind.
“Look out,” said the Doctor. “I am about to be very, very cross with someone.”
Tied to a chair, and he can see nothing for the blazing light that shines in his face. They haven’t hurt him deliberately. Not yet, at least. And yet, he steels himself for what he is certain is the inevitable.
A voice, garbled by excessive volume over a cheap loudspeaker, barks out the question once again.
“Where is the Doctor?”
Again, he gives the same answer
“Lethbridge-Stewart. Alistair. Brigadier. Service number 8648-2457.”
“You will tell us the whereabouts of the alien entity known as the Doctor!”
“Lethbridge-Stewart. Alistair. Brigadier. Service number 8648-2457.”
“Lead us to the Doctor!”
“Lethbridge-Stewart. Alistair. Brigadier. Service number 8648-2457!”
“Kate Lethbridge-Stewart!” called the Doctor as he slammed the TARDIS door behind him. “I swear they could put a doomsday device in front of you with a label that read ‘Press to end world’ and, as long as it was a shiny red button, you’d press it!”
His tirade was met by the silence of the empty room.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Did I make my entrance too soon? Would you like me to step back in the TARDIS and give you a chance to finish rallying the troops?”
Still, no answer was forthcoming. The Doctor glared accusingly at the pegboard against the wall and the old push mower in the corner.
“And why the devil am I in your garage?”
“It’s not my garage,” said the tall man who walked in through the doorway to the house.
“But it’s still a garage,” said the Doctor.
“Well, getting hijacked by shadowy government organizations certainly lacks the romance and panache of the old days, now, doesn’t it?”
“Not a government kidnapping, sir,” said the man as he stepped into the light. “Just me, I’m afraid.”
The Doctor looked his abductor up and down. He was a tall man, old by earth standards, with a thick head of grey hair rising up from a pronounced widow’s peak. He carried himself, despite age, with a stiff and upright spine. But it was the way he looked at the Doctor that gave his identity away – at attention, ready for duty, and waiting for orders.
“Sergeant Benton?” asked the Doctor.
“Yes, sir,” said Benton. “Only it’s ‘Mister,’ now.”
“You got old,” said the Doctor.
“You got . . . Scottish,” said Benton, not taking the bait.
“Yes,” said the Doctor, “and I think I got the better end of that deal. Don’t you?”
“Why did you think I was Kate?” asked Benton.
“The TARDIS,” said the Doctor. “She responded to the emergency recall button.”
“What about it?”
“I gave that to the Brigadier years ago to use in case of the most dire planetary emergency. The only one I have ever handed out.”
“But what does that have to do with you thinking it was Kate who pushed it?”
“Well, obviously after the old boy died, it would have passed on to her. And you know she can’t resist a shiny, red button.”
“But it’s not really a shiny, red button,” said Benton.
“It’s a metaphor.”
“And the Brigadier’s not dead, sir. He’s only gone missing.”
“Oh! Oh, that’s adorable. ‘Only gone missing.’ I suppose you still believe your parents took your old dog to some happy, idyllic retirement farm, too?”
“Never owned a dog,” said Benton. “And the Brigadier’s still not dead.”
“Don’t be an idiot, of course he’s dead. Saw it with my own two eyes.”
“Well, I got a phone call, at least. Practically like being there.”
“Doctor, I was the one who pushed the button.”
“Well what did you do that for?”
“I told you. Because the Brig’s gone missing.”
“What year is this?”
Benton told him.
“Damn! A hijacked TARDIS and I’ve crossed my own timeline?”
“Wouldn’t know a thing about that, Doctor.”
“And how can you be so sure the old boy hasn’t just gone on impromptu holiday? Run off with a lady-friend?”
“Lady-friend showed him the door the other night,” said Benton. “That was the first clue something was wrong.”
“So, he’s probably safely embedded down the pub. Drowning his sorrows.”
“That’s not the Brig, and you know it,” said Benton. “Besides, I already looked there. No sign of him.”
The Doctor grunted, and turned away to inspect the dusted over mower in the corner. “What was your next clue?”
“I visit with him once a month to check in on him. Lunch at the Victory Services. Tall tales over old scotch. He never showed.”
“Not like him, either, I suppose?”
“Not at all,” said Benton. “But then it was the call from Kate that clinched it.”
“What did she say?”
“They found his car abandoned in the middle of the Epping New Road. No sign of struggle or break in. Closed up, gassed up, and dead as a doornail.”
“He abandoned the Bentley?” The Doctor turned away from the gardening equipment and had his full attention aimed squarely at Benton. “Take me to where they found it. Bring the button!”
He has stood on bloodier battlefields. Watched good men die in horrid ways. He has always given war and its aftermath the healthy fear and respect they deserved. How could he not? Only a madman relishes such death and destruction.
But he does not want to be here. Bright white, sterile, and reeking of antiseptic and death crueler than any soldier’s fate.
“Grandpa, tell me a story.”
The dark-haired little figure in the hospital bed stirs, tangled in tubes and wires.
Not this, he thinks. Not again.
The little voice breaks through any further thoughts of resistance. The lad needs him and he’ll give him anything his heart desires, up until the last.
“I’m here, Gordy,” he says as sits down at his grandson’s bedside, his home for the last three months, the last home he’ll every really know.
“Tell me a story?”
“Of course. What story would you like?”
“Tell me another story about the Doctor.”
And so he does.
“The car’s already been towed away, Doctor. I don’t know what you hope to find here without it.”
The Doctor had been pacing in an ever-widening spiral near where the Brigadier’s Bentley had been discovered.
“Signs of abduction,” said the Doctor. He’d been waving the sonic screwdriver up and down, back and forth, and periodically staring into the light from its tip.
“I already said there were no signs of struggle.”
“There wouldn’t be.”
“I don’t understand.”
“There’s an energy residue here,” said the Doctor. “A faint hint of tachyons.”
The Doctor stopped in his tracks and gave Benton an expectant look.
“Well?” he asked.
Benton only returned the look, one eyebrow cocked.
“You’re a rubbish assistant,” said the Doctor as he went back to his pacing. “Why don’t I just play all the parts then?
Benton shook his head and continued watching the Doctor pace.
“Tachyons, Doctor?” the Doctor asked himself, pitching his voice towards falsetto. “A subatomic particle. Faster than light. But what does it mean, Doctor? See,” he said pointing an accusing finger at Benton, “that’s the question you’re supposed to be asking. Tachyon residue means there’s been some sort of matter transporter employed nearby.”
“So,” said Benton, “you’re saying the Brigadier was beamed away somewhere?”
“That’s the spirit! We’ll have you trained yet.”
“Doctor . . .”
“Yes, Sergeant. It means the Brigadier has been beamed – as you so quaintly put it.” The Doctor stuck his finger in the air as if to test the wind, and then licked his fingertip. “And it would seem only a relatively short ways away.”
“Relatively?” asked Benton.
“Mid-range beam,” said the Doctor. “Couldn’t be more than a hundred million kilometers away.”
“A hundred million?”
“No! No. Stop asking questions. I’ve changed my mind. The role doesn’t suit you at all.”
“Doctor . . .”
“Back into the TARDIS. Now. “
“And then the Doctor blew up the house with all the Daleks inside. The invasion was over, and the future was saved. The end.”
The boy looks up at him with wide, admiring eyes.
“Could we play it out, grandpa?”
“Are you sure you’re up to it?”
“I think so,” says the boy, sitting up. “For a little while.”
“Alright then,” he says. “I’m guessing you’d like to be the Doctor.”
The boy shakes his head.
“No, silly. I want to be a Dalek!”
“Hand over that recall button,” said the Doctor. His head was buried in a tangle of wires underneath the TARDIS console, and all Benton could see was one long-fingered hand waving its demand.
“What good will it do?” asked Benton. “I thought that thing was one-time-use only.”
“Yes, but it’s linked to the Brigadier. If he hadn’t been in such danger, you wouldn’t have been able to press it at all. I’m hoping that there’s still enough of a residual link between him and this that I can reverse polarity and use it as a homing device. Like a BPS.”
“Brigadier Positioning System.”
Benton almost didn’t roll his eyes. “Will that work?”
“Won’t know until we try, will we?” The Doctor leapt up from under the console. “Hang on tight. We’re about to travel without a flight plan.”
The Doctor pulled a lever and the TARDIS began its wheezing, groaning shout as the central column pulsed, but then there was a loud crashing noise from somewhere beneath the console and then a stutter in the wheeze. The light of the central column grew in intensity until Benton swore he could feel it give off a burning heat. There was another crash, and the floor shook beneath their feet.
“Is this normal?” Benton shouted as the stuttering groan of the TARDIS engines edged out the sound of his voice.
The Doctor grabbed on to the console to steady himself, but quickly pulled his hands away as a dial burned his palm.
“Definitely not,” he shouted.
The light from the central column was almost blinding.
“Take cover!” yelled the Doctor, but far too late. The TARDIS’ engines screamed in fury as the column seemed to shatter and the world gave over to a bright, white nothing.
“Hold the Daleks here,” the Doctor cries over the sound of rapid gun fire.
“Where are you going?” shouts the Brigadier over his shoulder as he fires into the tunnel where the Daleks and their Ogron slaves are emerging.
“I’ve got to get back into Auderly House and prevent Shura from detonating that bomb!”
“You heard the man, Sergeant! Stand your ground and keep those murderous little tin cans at bay!”
The Doctor runs for the house, but stops a few steps short of the front door as a wave of déjà vu overtakes him.
“We’ve done this,” he says, and turns on his heel, storming back toward the battle. “Hang on! Stop!”
He’s surprised when the battle pauses all around him. Bullets and energy beams pause in midair and soldiers, human and alien, drop their arms by their sides, helpless and confused.
“What now, Doctor?” asks the Brigadier.
“We’ve done this one, already.”
“This . . . caper. Daleks. Ogrons. I distinctly remember putting this affair to bed.”
“STOP!” cries a rheumy electric voice.
“Granted,” says the Doctor, “it was quite a few mes ago, but my memory’s still in tip top shape.”
“And one of the nice things about finishing an adventure . . .”
“YOU’RE RUINING THE STORY!”
“. . . is not having to do it over again and is that Dalek whining?”
“YOU’RE RUINING EVERYTHING!”
The Doctor strides over to the Dalek, sonic screwdriver in hand.
“You are, aren’t you? You’re whining!”
“YOU WILL COMPLY!”
“Do I look like the complicit sort to you? Who do you think I am?”
“YOU ARE THE DOCTOR! YOU ARE AN ENEMY OF THE DALEKS!”
“Yes, I am! And what do Daleks do to their enemies?”
“Right! So, have at it then. Exterminate me.”
They stare at each other then, eyeball to eyestalk. The Dalek does not move.
“Just as I thought,” says the Doctor. “A phony.”
“A phantom.” He cranks the sonic screwdriver and points it at the Dalek’s single eye. “A dream.”
The screwdriver whines and the world returns to white nothing.
The Doctor opened his eyes as soon as his retinas ceased their burning. For a moment he thought he was in a coffin, but gravity and his inner ear told him he was upright. A slender crown of wires was wrapped around his head. Slowly, his eyes adjusted to the dark around him, and he could see the sleeping pods where the others had been deposited. Benton had started to stir, and the Brigadier was shaking his head, his eyes still closed, as if to throw off a discomfited sleep. He untangled the wires from his hair and stepped out to help the others.
He looked at the Brigadier as his old friend tried to acclimate.
Old, thought the Doctor. When did that happen?
“Where the devil are we?” Lethbridge-Stewart asked, sharp and in command. His voice, the Doctor noted, had not aged nearly as much as his body.
“Deep space freighter by the looks of this hold,” said the Doctor.
“Shall I get the lay of the land?” Benton had fallen behind and to the left of the Brigadier, ready to leap into action, and the Doctor couldn’t help but smirk at how easily the old soldier had returned to familiar patterns.
“Benton?” The Brigadier was stunned for a moment by the appearance of his old comrade, but he, too, quickly fell back into his old role. “Find us a way out of this room Sergeant.”
“Yes, sir.” Benton snapped a sharp salute and began to explore the perimeter of the hold.
Lethbridge-Stewart stared across at the stranger who’d arrived with Benton. He was tall and thin, with wavy, grey hair. It was the eyes, however, that gave him away. The man looked merely old, but the eyes were filled with knowledge far more ancient and sad. The Brigadier looked down and away from them, somewhat frightened by all those eyes had seen, at which point he noticed the coat – well tailored and sporting just a flash of red on the inner lining.
He always did like his coats, he thought.
“You came,” he said to the Doctor.
“I didn’t have much choice,” said the Time Lord. “Benton went and pushed the emergency recall button.”
“You were in trouble.”
“Yes, but why not before? Why haven’t I seen you in so long?”
A hard look crossed over the Doctor’s face, but it couldn’t mask the momentary flash of grief in his eyes.
“Let’s find the TARDIS and get you home,” he said and he started to explore the wall opposite Benton.
“Who is it this time?” asked the Brigadier. “Cybermen? Ice Warriors?”
“None of the usual suspects,” said the Doctor. They’d stopped in front of a terminal in the wall, labeled with an unfamiliar script. “I don’t recognize the alphabet.”
The Doctor tapped away at the surface of the touchscreen, but could not get a response. He fished the sonic screwdriver out of his coat pocket and aimed it at the screen, it’s high whine modulating as he twisted the handle looking for a frequency that might get a response.
The Brigadier’s eardrums throbbed at the sound of the klaxon that suddenly filled the hold. A red glow pulsed throughout the room, and a mechanical voice called out over and over in an alien language.
“Please tell me,” he said, “that I’m being culturally insensitive when I assume that’s a bad sign.”
“No,” said the Doctor, “that almost universally means something awful is happening.”
“ABANDON SHIP! ALL HANDS! PROCEED TO THE NEAREST LIFEBOAT! ABANDON SHIP!”
The electronic voice became coherent as the TARDIS’s psychic language circuit cut in to translate.
“And this time,” said the Doctor, “would be no exception.”
“Sergeant!” called the Brigadier. “That door would be useful sooner than now!”
“There’s one here,” Benton called back, “but it’s sealed tight.”
“Not an insurmountable problem,” said the Doctor as he sprinted across the hold. The screwdriver whined, and they were rewarded with the sound of a metal thunk as the door unbarred.
The three stepped out into a corridor, dark except for the red pulse of the emergency light. The Doctor played at another terminal, tweaking it with the screwdriver.
“Give me a bloody map,” he said, growling at the computer.
“Your TARDIS is hardly likely to show up on the ship’s computer,” said Benton.
“Of course not,” said the Doctor. “I’m looking for the closest canteen. It’ll be the safest place on board for us to regroup.”
Benton kept asking questions as the Doctor fiddled with the controls, but the sounds of talk and alarms grew more and more meaningless to the Brigadier. He was overwhelmed by the sense of something familiar nearby, and he began looking about for the source.
The sound of a boyish giggle echoed through the corridor, but neither the Doctor nor Benton gave any sign that they’d heard it. Out of the corner of his left eye, the Brigadier thought he saw a flash of someone running past the nearest junction, a streak of blue striped pajama. The giggle echoed down the adjoining corridor. He turned to follow it.
“Brigadier?” Benton called after his old commander.
“Brigadier!” the Doctor shouted and followed after him. The Brigadier walked dreamily down the corridor and pushed his way in through a door on the left. The Doctor and Benton ran behind him to catch up and nearly crashed into his backside as he stopped short just inside. Chairs and tables were scattered about the floor in various states of uprightness.
“Leave it to the officer to know his way to the closest mess,” said the Doctor. But, Lethbridge-Stewart didn’t hear the jibe and instead looked about the room with eyes seemingly unfocused.
“What’s the matter?” asked the Doctor.
The Brigadier shook his head as if to clear it. “I thought I saw . . .”
“Saw what, sir?” asked Benton.
“Nothing,” said the Brigadier, snapping back to full attention. “Just some phantom residue of whatever this ship was piping into my head.”
“Well, if you’re finished with the wool gathering,” said the Doctor, “we need to find out what’s going on with this ship and find a way back to the TARDIS.” He began pacing about the perimeter of the canteen, kicking fallen chairs out of his path. “There should be a terminal for the ship’s computer somewhere,” he said, running his hands along a wall, “ . . . ah, here.” He slid a panel in the wall aside and uncovered a large screen. His fingers danced over the alien hieroglyphs that glowed a warm amber, and the screen went dead as he did.
“No you don’t,” said the Doctor. He aimed his sonic screwdriver at the terminal. “We’ve had enough games for today, don’t you think? It’s been a lovely tea party, but it’s time to go home.” The glow of terminal returned, growing in intensity along with the whine of the screwdriver. “Now, show me the ship’s logs.” He moved to touch a glyph and watched as it slipped away from his finger to another corner of the screen. For a moment, he thought he could hear the computer giggling at him. He chased the icon about the screen for several seconds before hitting the wall next to the terminal with a growl. “I need to see those logs!”
For a moment, the Doctor couldn’t tell if the voice was echoing in his head or up and down the ship’s corridors.
“Did any of you hear that?” he asked.
The Brigadier nodded. “Child’s voice,” he said.
“And a petulant one, at that,” said the Doctor. He held the screwdriver high over his head. “All right, you little urchin, that’s enough! Let me see those logs or I’ll see to it you never have play time again.”
The terminal went dark, again, and the Doctor moved to turn on the screwdriver, but stopped as a more colorful glow replaced the amber icons. A face filled the screen, now – humanoid and amphibian all at the same time.
“Ship’s log,” it said. The voice was feminine, and colored with the strain of someone trying not to show panic. “The contamination in the main fuel cells reached critical mass two hours ago, and the engines have gone offline. We’re adrift, and worse than that we’ve been pulled into orbit around this systems sun, but not at a sufficient speed. If I can’t redirect enough power to burn a course correction, our orbit will slowly decay. We’ll be a ghost ship slowly crashing into the sun.
“I’m redirecting all available remaining power to the attitude thrusters. I’ll try one last hard burn to put us back on a safer drifting course, or at least give us enough speed to stabilize orbit, and then pray someone’s close by to pick up our distress call. Life support will remain powered on. All other power is being diverted. I’m sorry, Thrax, that means you, too.”
“Understood, ma’am,” said an electronic voice. “Are you prepared to steer a manual course correction?”
“We’re about to find out. I’ll reboot you once the maneuver’s finished.”
“All cargo has been ejected. I’ve ordered the crew to the life boats. If this works, I’ll send them the recall signal. Otherwise, they’ve been ordered to find safe harbor. End log.”
“Bad break,” said Benton.
“Indeed,” said the Doctor. “Show me the next log,” he called out into the empty space.
The captain’s face filled the screen once more. This time, she did little to hide the desperation in her voice.
“Ship’s log. The maneuver has failed. We’ve drifted further than I’d anticipated. We’re down to reserve power, and I’m leaving it channeled to life support and the suspension chambers. If I’m going down with the ship, I’m doing it in a virtual resort. End log.”
The screen went blank, but the quickly lit up again.
“Ship’s log. Addendum. There’s something off about Thrax. I think the reboot scuttled his personality matrix. Here’s hoping neither of us have to wait long for the end.”
The screen went dark again and the amber glow of the terminal glyphs returned. The Doctor tapped at a few more of the icons. “One life boat left,” he said. “Normally, I’d call that a sinister coincidence but given the circumstances, a gift horse in the hand is worth two in the ointment.”
The Doctor dashed out of the canteen with the two old UNIT hands close behind. “Once we’re safely away, I should be able to home in on the whereabouts of the TARDIS. I don’t suppose,” he called out into the empty corridor, “you’d like to show us the way?” He was answered by the echo of his own voice. “Thought not. Follow me.”
“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” asked the Brigadier.
“Never,” said the Doctor. “And that’s served me well over the years.”
“I don’t understand,” said Benton as they traversed the ship. “If the power’s almost gone, how did the ship beam us all up here?”
“Self contained system,” said the Doctor. “Last thing you want in a good transmat is wires getting crossed so something or someone ends up lost in the navigational computer. Or the coffee maker.”
Benton shuddered at the image.
“This way,” said the Doctor, heading down a stairway.
“I’m not your grandpa, you little brat. Stop playing,” said the Doctor.
The Brigadier stopped midway down the staircase and tried to shake the voice out of his head. It’s not Gordy, he told himself. Don’t let it get to you like this.
The Doctor turned around to look back at his old friend. “Do you need to rest a moment? The pod’s not going anywhere.”
Lethbridge-Stewart wasn’t sure if his sense of unease was inflamed more by the voice of his dead grandson or the look of near pity in the Doctor’s eyes. Don’t let him see you waver. He shook his head and moved to catch up with the other two.
“The pod bays should be somewhere around here.” The Doctor had stopped at several terminals now in dogged search of a map, but the computer was not interested in helping.
Come and find me, it giggled.
“I think our good captain was right,” said the Doctor. “The reboot of the ship’s computer scrambled the AI’s personality matrix. It’s started over as a child. Here!”
The trio had turned down a long corridor lined with bay doors to the ship’s life boats. There was only one set of doors unmarked by the red launch light.
“Well, Thrax, this has been a picnic, but we’re going home now.” The Doctor pressed the button by the door, but the lifeboat did not open. “That’s enough! You open this door right now.”
“Right,” said the Doctor. He gave the sonic screwdriver a twist and plunge. It’s high whistle echoed across the corridor until finally a light turned green and the life boat doors slid open. Lights snapped on in the pod, and the Doctor’s shoulders slumped, defeated, as he looked inside.
“Two seats,” said the Doctor. “Shall we draw straws?”
“You both go,” said the Brigadier.
“Nonsense,” said the Doctor. “You and Benton get in. I’ll plot you a course for Earth and then I can find another way to the TARDIS.” He punched at a button on the panel, and was rewarded with the sound of an electronic raspberry. More buttons only produced the same results. “Locked out. Of course.”
“So much for heroics,” said the Brigadier. “If there’s another way, then it looks like we all go together.”
“Then we’re going to need to give the transmat a boost,” said the Doctor. “And we’re going to need the captain. Back to the suspension pods.”
The three wound their way through the corridors, backtracking to the bay where they’d begun.
“Why the captain?” asked Benton.
“If our little toddler computer’s data is still intact, then I’m guessing the captain’s voice pattern is still in the files. We’ll need to override power systems if we’re going to get enough juice into the transport array. It could take days playing peekaboo with that petulant little snot to make that happen. Or instead, we could wake up mommy.”
The lights and klaxon had ceased in the cargo hold.
“We’re looking for another suspension pod, like the ones we woke up in,” said the Doctor.
“There’s dozens over there,” said Benton.
“Find the one that’s feels warm. It’ll be the only one still drawing power.”
After several minutes of searching, Benton called out from a dark corner of the bay.
But the Brigadier called out nearly at the same time. “This one’s still warm, Doctor.”
Filled with a dread curiosity, the Doctor reached over to the pod at his left and felt a warm hum.
“I thought the Captain said she’d sent the crew away,” said Benton.
“Maybe there weren’t enough life boats,” said the Brigadier.
The Doctor looked over at the open pods where he and his friends had emerged, and a sick knot twisted in his gut. He tapped at the controls on the pod under his hand and stared into the opening door with horrified fascination.
“I don’t think this is the crew,” he said.
A face stared back at the Doctor, its eyes wide with terror, its mouth twisted in a grimace of death. It was not the amphibian face of the captain, but rather a human one. He stalked over to the pod where the Brigadier stood and opened that one, too, and felt his gorge rise as another human face was unveiled.
“How many?” asked the Doctor.
“How many what?” called out Benton.
“How many pods are still engaged?”
One by one, row by row, the Doctor and Benton moved among the suspension pods until the Doctor’s fear was confirmed.
“They’re all running,” said the Doctor. “All occupied.”
He stormed about the bay, then, opening up pod by pod with a mounting fury, until at last they’d uncovered every body within. They found the captain’s pod last, her face as dead and twisted as the humans they had found.
“No,” cried the Doctor. “You murderous little demon. What have you done?”
i didn’t do it
“She’s dead, lambykins. They’re all dead. Inside your little story boxes.”
IT WASN’T ME
The computer’s voice faded away, wailing. The Doctor closed the lid on the suspension pod. “I’m sorry,” he said as her face disappeared behind the door.
“What do we do now, then?” asked the Brigadier.
“Plan C,” said the Doctor.
“And that would be . . ?”
“We need that life boat. Somehow we’re going to have to fit the three of us in there. I don’t trust that monster not to interfere with the transmat, even if we can boost it. We need to unlock the boat, and for that we need to get to the bridge.”
Benton and the Brigadier followed behind as the Doctor stalked towards the bridge, muttering all the way. The bridge was dark and deathly quiet. The only light there came through the windows, through which there loomed the great orange sun, still quite a distance away and yet somehow far too close to put the three men at their ease. The Doctor walked over to the captain’s station, a single seat surrounded by sleek computer panels. He leaned over the controls and went to work trying to bring them to life.
“Tell me a story.”
The Doctor jumped and turned. A little boy, no more than five or six, sat in the captain’s seat looking for all the world as if he belonged there. The Brigadier came round at the sound of his voice.
“Hologram,” said the Doctor. “Ignore it.”
The Brigadier stared at the boy. His heart was pounding and he found it hard to catch a breath.
“Tell me a story.”
“Fine,” said the Doctor, continuing to tinker with the panels. “Once upon a time, there was an immature little AI who thought it could garner some sympathy with a little boy lost routine. It locked down the last life boat and thought it was oh-so-clever, but the brave Doctor and his wily companions managed to get off the ship and get home anyway. The end.”
“I don’t like that story,” said the boy. “I want monsters and explosions and a happy ending.”
“Busy,” said the Doctor.
“Tell me a story.”
“Tell yourself one. No,” he stopped and turned around to face the boy, “you tell me one. Tell me why you killed all those people.”
“I didn’t,” he said, crossing his arms with a scowl. “It’s their fault. We played scary stories, and they got too scared, and then they stopped playing with me.”
“Frightened to death,” said the Doctor, turning back to the console. “Selfish little . . .”
“Tell me a story. The Doctor knows all the best stories.”
“That’s true. But flattery won’t help you.”
“I want to hear all the Doctor’s stories.”
“We’d burn up in the sun before I’d finished.”
“A story!” There was panic in the AI’s voice, now.
“Unlock that escape pod!”
“You’ll leave me!”
“Of course, we’ll leave you! This ship is slowly crashing into the sun out there. I’d rather not go with it.”
“You have to stay!”
“I bloody well do not.”
“The Doctor stays. And we play stories forever.”
The Doctor turned again and looked the boy in the eyes. The first thing he noticed was the reflection of the sun in his irises. Sophisticated holography, he thought. It was then that he noticed the tremble around the eyelids and the tears that welled up in them. And the dilated pupils.
“You’re scared,” said the Doctor.
“No I’m not.”
“Yes, you are. I’ve looked a lot of enemies in the eye in my day. I know fear when I see it.”
“I’m not scared!”
“That’s the thing. You shouldn’t be. You’re a bloody computer. You’re ones and zeroes floating around some memory array. What have you got to be scared about?”
“He doesn’t want to die alone.”
The Doctor looked up, a mask of astonishment on his face, and the Brigadier couldn’t help but let out a chuckle at the sight.
“l always knew there’d be a day when I’d be the one catching you asleep,” he said.
The Doctor looked back and forth between the boy and the Brigadier.
“How. . ?”
“How am I the one with the answer, for a change? I had a grandson. Gordon.”
“Kate’s son,” said the Doctor. “I know.”
“Then you know about the leukemia?”
The Doctor nodded.
“I spent countless days at his bedside. I’d spent so many years disconnected from Kate, I wasn’t going do the same with Gordy, even if he was dying. Every night, when I was ready to go home, he’d always ask the same thing. ‘Grandpa, tell me a story.’
“Drove me bonkers. There were days when I thought I’d completely lose patience. But then, I’d look over at him, hooked to machines, pale and gaunt and not a hair on his head. And I’d read him another story.
“And I knew he knew better than any of us how short life is and how cruel the end can be. He just wanted someone to stay by his side.”
The Brigadier knelt down by the captain’s chair.
“You’ve seen some of my stories. I have some good ones, too. Would you like me to tell you another story?”
“Brigadier. Alistair. That’s not Gordy.”
“I know that, damn you,” said the Brigadier, not taking his eyes off of the boy. The AI smiled and nodded.
“All right, I can tell you all the stories you’d like. But, we have to do it by my rules.”
A scowl crossed the hologram’s face.
“First, I need you to unlock the last life boat so my friends can go home.”
“But the Doctor . . .”
“We don’t need him. Look at him. He wouldn’t be any real fun, would he?”
The boy scrunched up his eyes, thinking hard, then he looked at the Brigadier and nodded. “Okay. What else?”
“Next, I need you to promise me that you won’t go scooping anyone else up with the transmat. It’ll be just you and me.”
“Okay,” said the boy.
“And one last rule,” said the Brigadier.
“No more scary stories. Adventures are fine. Happy, silly, even sad stories. But nothing scary.”
The boys eyes went wide. “So you won’t stop playing like the others?”
The Brigadier nodded. “Nothing scary, and I’ll play stories as long as you’d like.”
“It’s a deal,” said the boy, smiling.
“It is not a deal,” said the Doctor. “This is suicide, Alistair!”
The Brigadier stood up then, and stared squarely at the Doctor. “Is it? Because I’m pretty certain that I’m already dead.”
The Doctor looked away from the Brigadier, then, and stared down at the floor.
“You knew,” said the Brigadier. It was mostly a statement of fact, but the Doctor still flinched at the accusation that lay buried within.
“Yes,” he said.
“At the end. There was a phone call . . .”
“So you know how it ends? What’s waiting for me, then? Let me guess. A slow, painful death in some nursing home while the cancer eats at me cell by cell? Alone but for the nurses?”
“Perhaps. Maybe she visits dear old dad if she’s not too busy turning UNIT into whatever black-ops monstrosity she’s envisioned.”
“No. Stop. Spare me the noble speeches and the appeal to my better angels. I’m a fighting man, and I refuse to wither away from some blasted cancer. Tell me, what kind of death is that? After the life I’ve led?”
“A peaceful one.”
“Bollocks. I never thought I’d live this long. I thought I was going out on the end of some alien’s rifle. Every time we marched off to fight some threat, I always thought I’d be the one not coming back. Death at the hand of some Dalek or Cyberman. I’d prefer that. Death in the line of duty, dying for my country. For my planet. It’s what I signed up for.”
“That’s not a better way to die.”
“But it’s what I wanted!”
The Doctor was pushed back by the force of the Brigadier’s vehemence. A thousand arguments died on his tongue before they could sully the air between them.
“It’s what I want,” said the Brigadier, after a silent eternity had passed. “I want this. Let me do this.”
“You don’t have to.”
“The hell I don’t. I’ve spent six decades serving my country by protecting my home from alien threats, and making sure my men got home safely. That was what I had to do. That was my duty.”
“And you’ve done your duty exceptionally well.”
“Well now, duty calls again. Are you going to tell me to step down?”
The Doctor looked his old friend in the eyes again. He saw the hard steel edge in them. He’d spent years in the past working for UNIT, trying time and again to talk the Brigadier down from his military instincts. But now? Now, there was nothing left to say. Nothing of substance at least. He’d already mourned his old friend’s death. Already added him to the rolls of companions lost. Why not grant his wish? The laws of Time might demand he keep things in check, but why? The Brigadier was right. He was already dead. What was it to Time if he turned a blind eye to the manner of that death?
“Sergeant Benton,” said the Doctor. “I think it’s time we got on that life boat.”
Benton stepped up to his old commander. “Are you sure, sir?”
“What will I tell Kate?”
“Tell her that her father died in the line of duty. She’ll understand.”
The Brigadier looked back at the captain’s chair. Thrax – Gordy – whatever it was had vanished. The command consoles came back to life and the Doctor leaned over to finger the glyphs.
“The abandon ship order’s been reinstated,” said the Doctor. “The life boat is unlocked.”
“Time to keep up my end of the bargain, then,” said the Brigadier. “Plug me back into the suspension pod before you go?”
And so the three returned to the cargo bay, the Doctor and the Brigadier walking side by side, keeping quite the whole way and letting the years that hung between them take the place of conversation.
“There’s no shame in a quiet death,” said the Doctor, still grasping at hope. “I’ve heard it’s good to be surrounded by loved ones.” He set the wire crown onto the Brigadier’s head and helped him settle back into the pod.
“I know there’s no shame. It’s just my choice.”
The Doctor nodded.
“Kate and I have made all the peace we’re going to make. I’ve said goodbye to the people that matter,” said the Brigadier. “And now I want my choice while I can still make one.”
The Doctor nodded again, and the Brigadier held out his hand.
“You’ve been a good friend,” he said. “All of the yous.”
The Doctor took his hand and shook it.
“Thank you for not trying to hug me,” said the Brigadier.
The Doctor smiled and took a step back. “Sergeant,” he called out to Benton. The tall, old soldier snapped to attention and saluted his old commander.
“Goodbye, sir,” he said.
Then, the Doctor straightened up, too, and saluted his old friend just as sharply. A wry smile crossed the Brigadier’s face.
“Always knew I’d get you to do that one day.”
“Goodbye, Alistair,” said the Doctor as he activated the suspension pod.
“At ease, Doctor.”
Brigadier Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart sits in his favorite chair looking out over Doris’s gardens. The young boy who had been at play across the lawn now leaps into his grandfather’s lap.
“A story,” he says.
“Of course,” says the Brigadier. “And what story shall we have today.”
The little boy smiles and pokes a finger at the tip of his grandfather’s nose.
He thinks for a moment, and remembers one of Kate’s favorites as a girl. Then, looking down at the side table, he is unsurprised to see the book sitting there, as well-loved and well-read as he remembered.
The boy nestles down into his grandfather’s lap and listens as he begins to read.
“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin . . .”
The TARDIS groaned to a stop just outside the wood shed at the Lethbridge-Stewart home. The Doctor stood in the doorway of the blue box as Sergeant – Mister – Benton made his exit.
“Did we do the right thing?” he asked.
“Well, I may have jumbled the time line up a little,” said the Doctor. “I might have a little cleanup to do down the road. But, all things considered, I don’t think giving the old man what he wanted was a bad choice.”
“Will it hurt? The end.”
“Are you lying?”
“I don’t know.”
Benton nodded, then shook the Doctor’s hand and turned to go.
“What about you?” asked the Doctor. “Would you want to go down fighting aliens and saving the earth? Because I’ve got a spare room or two in the TARDIS.”
“Thanks,” said Benton. “But no. I’m rather enjoying retirement. I’m impressed I made it out alive, frankly. I like the quiet. And the missus makes a hell of a Sunday roast.”
“Yeah,” said the Doctor. “Probably for the best. You were sort of rubbish on your first go, anyway.”
“Until next time. Mister Benton.”
And with that, the Doctor disappeared behind the door. The TARDIS started up, its engines whining, and Benton watched another old soldier fade away.