Nik finds himself in an unfamiliar place with people who talk of “the Effect” and “drafting”, tracking a mysterious illness that travels the globe. Can Nik, the Doctor and their new friends prevent a cataclysm?
My name is Nik. My adventure with the Doctor started with a scarf lying on a table. A scarf that would both misidentify me to others and threaten my life. I probably should have let it lie. I could see the man it belonged to hurrying out the door of the café. I’d been watching him as I ate. He was overdressed for the mild weather, and there was a sort of restlessness to him, like he’d never be happy anywhere. I’d just paid and was sure I could catch him. So I snatched up the scarf and followed after.
He was quicker than I expected. I lost him for a moment, then saw him turn down Queen Street. I rushed to follow. I turned the corner. I could see him standing there in the middle of the street just looking around. He twisted his whole body, did a backwards step and spun around. Was he lost? I ran up to him as he did one final turn and then vanished. Yeah, I said vanished because that’s what he did. One second he was there, the next, not. A little bewildered, I found myself inadvertently mimicking his motions. I turned this way and that, half expecting some elaborate prank was being pulled on me.
I did one final turn, scanning the area and thought- “Queen Street is only so long!” As this thought rang in my brain, I saw the sky change overhead. Large flakes of snow flew down at my face, getting in my eyes. I used the scarf to wipe my face. Then it occurred to me something else was wrong besides the sky. The street had changed. The buildings were different. The air was colder. Instinctively, I put the scarf around my neck. I felt both larger and smaller at the same time. All kinds of strange notions came to my mind. I was lost. Did I black out? Did someone spike my drink? Was I dreaming? But it was freezing cold.
I backed up to a doorframe to get what little protection it offered from the driving snow. The door behind me swung inwards and before I could react to the sensation of falling, hands caught me and hauled me inside.
“You’re late. We’d almost given you up,” a voice growled. My eyes adjusted to the dimness of the room. There wasn’t much to see in the half basement. Three other people were in the space with me. A middle aged man with dry, sort of tough-looking hands had been speaking. To his right, at a wood table sat a youngish woman with short hair and an upturned nose. To his left stood an older woman with gray hair tied into a bun. She spoke now, “We warned you it would be cold. How was the trip? You look dazed.”
“I wasn’t expecting it to be quite this cold,” I said carefully.
“This is Harley. I’m Lois. How much information has John here shared with you?” Lois gestured at the man who spoke first as she said the name John.
“Not enough,” I said. How were we meant to know each other?
Here the younger woman spoke, “That’s fine. I’ll fill you in. GHC confirms it’s the same illness across all four continents. The infectious agent is still unknown. It strikes seemingly at random, infecting a few people before appearing to jump across miles and miles, sometimes over an ocean. As you know, based on this strange pattern we were at first thinking Circle of Magnus. But there is another possibility. Lois?”
“I got in touch with a few other former UNIT folks and one of them remembered a planet of intelligent bacteria called Micros. If a Micros cluster is working with someone to spread the disease in a carefully planned way, it could explain what we are seeing. We just don’t know why. Are the people who have died connected in some way? Were they targeted for some reason? Or is it to terrify?”
“Intelligent bacteria acting to kill people? Wouldn’t they die themselves?” I asked, momentarily forgetting I had zero idea who these people thought I was.
“Maybe. It could be a calculated loss. Or they may have a way of escaping after unleashing toxin into their victim. At any rate, why don’t you tell us what you found out? Were you able to track Sarden? Anthony?”
“No, neither of them.” I said quickly. But I guessed wrong.
John stood up suddenly, pulling a knife out. “YOU’RE s’posed to be Anthony. But you’re not are you?”
“Shit,” Harley said.
“Nerve block?” said Lois under her breath as they moved to surround me.
“Don’t hurt me, look you dragged me in here, and just started talking! What was I supposed to say??”
Harley pinned my arm behind me and Lois deftly stuck a small round dot to the side of my neck. It pinched my skin, then felt warm and comforting. “Sit,” said Lois. Great idea! I thought. I sat.
“What’s your name?” she asked me.
“Nik,” I said. A lovely effervescent feeling was sweeping over me like a current.
“Where did you get that scarf?” John asked.
“It was left behind by a man in a café,” I answered.
“What café? Where?” John continued.
“Down the street in Oxford,” I said.
“So you’re a practitioner of the Magnus Effect?” Lois said.
“Sorry, I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Do you know where you are?” Harley asked.
“Do you know how you got here?” Lois asked.
“Not really. I was just following the man whose scarf this is.”
“What happened to him?”
“I dunno. He disappeared.”
It occurred to me how nice my new friends were. What did it matter that I didn’t know what was going on or where I was? It was so good talking with them! “You guys are the best,” I said, feeling happy.
“Well he doesn’t have any mental training,” Lois observed.
“Oxford he said though! He’s lying about how he got here,” John said.
“No one can lie through a nerve block, at least not without a lot of pain,” Harley replied. “He must have drafted after Anthony. You know, for a supposed one-in-a-million event, draftings seem to happen a lot. I’ve personally seen it twice. I’m starting to think there’s some glaring elitist BS about who can learn this. For heaven’s sake John, put that knife away.”
“Sorry. But what’s happened to Anthony then?” John asked.
He’s dead I’m afraid,” said someone across the room. The Doctor stepped from the shadows. “I’m the Doctor: codename- the Doctor. Circle of Magnus I presume? Anthony was dying when I found him.”
“Who the hell-? What is this- welcome outsiders day!?” John said. But while John grew agitated, Lois straightened herself taller and to the Doctor she said, “Sir!”
“Ex-UNIT, I take it? I do wish you lot would dispense with the formalities,” the Doctor said to her. Lois smiled sheepishly. Her hand was halfway to a salute. Instead she folded her arms. “John, UNIT has worked closely with the Doctor for many years. He’s a friend. Doctor, what can you tell us about Anthony? This would have been our first point of contact. That scarf Nik has on was the identifier. What happened?”
“Anthony and Sarden are both dead. Succumbed to an illness- same one you’ve been tracking I expect. The actual pathogen eludes me, however. I couldn’t find any trace of it. I tried to get some sense out of Anthony but I think he was too far gone. Kept talking about a civil war. Oh- and Anthony had these on him.” The Doctor held out a pair of cards to show Lois. “Circle of Magnus! So Sarden was a practitioner after all. Anthony must have confronted him. But if Sarden was behind all this what went wrong?”
“Anthony dead. Outsiders bargin’ in. Fine kettle of fish,” John muttered. “And what are we going to do with him?” He jerked his thumb at me.
“I’d start by apologizing and taking the neural sticker off his neck,” suggested the Doctor.
Lois peeled the sticker off and got rid of it. “Sorry,” she said curtly. “Where were you headed? Is anybody expecting you?”
“My wife. We have dinner plans later. What was that thing you put on my neck?”
“Don’t worry about it. Alright. Who’s going to draft him back? I can do the memory scrub. Shouldn’t take very long.”
“Hang on, is scrubbing my memory totally necessary?” I asked.
“We just need a cover story for him,” Lois continued.
“Want me to smack him upside the head? Maybe he was mugged,” suggested John.
“He’s joking,” said Lois.
“Really John,” said Harley, exasperated.
“Just this once? You never let me.”
“Can I Make A SUGGESTION?” I said. The room went silent. Before they could recover from being startled I pressed on, “You’re down a person, and I’m here. I don’t want my memory scrubbed. Let me stay and help.”
“How are you going to help us?” Lois asked.
“I-” Here I froze. “I don’t know yet. But, lives are at stake, aren’t they? There must be something I can do.”
“Are you afraid?”
“Yeah mate I am. But that’s not stopping any of you. Why should I let it stop me?”
“Well, we could send him to Micros with Harley. It might be a longshot, but it’s our only lead right now.”
“He drafted once before. He has the knack for it,” Harley replied.
“Could someone please explain this drafting business to me?” I said.
“Ah right. Sorry Nik. All of us are practitioners of the Magnus Effect. It’s a conceptual-spacial trick that allows us to travel between roads that have the same name. It’s part physical- you move in a very specific way- and part mental- you have to focus your mind on the name of the street. When you do these things correctly, the conceptual corridor opens up and takes you from one place to the next.”
“So where am I?”
“I followed Anthony and accidentally wound up in Canada?”
The look on my face must have been priceless.
“So, we think we can use the Magnus Effect not just to travel earth but also to reach Micros. There’s a device UNIT built that can stretch the Effect to take us off-planet. It was in storage following UNIT’s demise but luckily a few of us forgot to turn in our keys. You and I will be hosts for bacterial colonies of Micros.”
“When you say hosts, you’re not just talking in a room together, are you?”
Harley smiled. “Perceptive. We need to literally host the bacteria inside us in order to communicate. I’m going to inject you with something that will selectively dampen your immune response. This will allow them to use the language center in your brain. There’s one for each of us.”
The Doctor spoke. “There’s no need to use the Magnus Effect. We can take my TARDIS. There’s just one thing bothering me. I know the name Micros. Why do I know it?” As the Doctor stood across the room puzzling this over, Harley injected me. It stung my arm and I felt dizzy.
“This feels really strange. Tell me it’s suddenly getting warmer in here?” I said feeling unsteady.
“I don’t like this. He’s not supposed to be reacting this way,” said Harley. I tried to say something but halfway in I forgot what it was. Lois seemed to be helping me sit on a bench. I lay down instead. The room spun around me.
“Nik, can you tell us what’s happening?” asked the Doctor.
“My head-” I said.
“What did you do to him?” the Doctor demanded.
“It shouldn’t be doing this! I swear!” Harley protested.
“His mind is open,” a new voice said. The voice sounded very strange. A sharp, whispery, hard-edged crackle, it was alien, yet at the same time weirdly familiar. It was almost like listening to my own voice except somehow metal and serpentine. To this voice I asked clarification. “His mind is open?”
“What? Whose mind?” said the Doctor.
“Do you perceive us?” the voice continued.
“Yes,” I said.
“How is it you hear us?”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Who is he talking to?” said Lois. Through the haze in my brain I thought she sounded rattled.
“We are Helis of Micros. We believed this planet was one of primitives. Yet your brain does not fight us.”
“I’ve been given something to allow us to talk.”
Harley, although she sounded like she was underwater now, said, “He’s talking with the bacteria now. They’re already inside him. But how did they get here?”
“The scarf! Anthony was already carrying them,” said Lois distantly.
Helis spoke again. “Understand. We are in control of you. If we want you to die, you will.”
To prove their point, Helis increased my fever so I began to sweat.
“There is no need, I do understand, please, stop this,” I gasped. My temperature was lowered back to a feverish almost-normal.
“That means we’re all infected,” said underwater Harley.
“Are my friends in danger?” I asked.
“Only if you fight us,” Helis said.
“You’re the boss then. What is it you want?”
“Return us to Micros.”
“I don’t understand. Haven’t you got a way of returning?”
“Nik, what’s happening? What are they saying? Can you answer?” The Doctor hovered a few steps away.
“Doctor- they want us to return them to Micros.”
“Who is Doctor?” Helis asked.
“The Doctor. That’s him over there. He’s a friend.” I could only sit up slightly, exhausted even at this much effort, but I nodded in his direction.
“Doctor is a darkness to us. The others we sense but not that one. And all our scouts are lost who go there. Tell us why. Quickly.”
“Doctor, they don’t seem able to sense you. They’re asking me to explain.”
“And I believe I can. I’m a Time Lord, not a human. You said they come from Micros. I knew I’d heard the name before. Now I remember why. I’m incompatible with them. They try to send out airborne cells to detect me; those get destroyed upon impact. My immune system is actively destructive to them through touch. That’s why I couldn’t find any pathogen on Anthony and Sarden. Exposure to me destroyed them.”
In spite of my tiredness I quickly sat up. “Stay back Doctor. Don’t touch us. Don’t lay a finger on any of us!”
“Nik, stay calm. I can help you.” The Doctor took a step nearer. I got to my feet, my heart beating fast. The Doctor spoke quietly, carefully advancing another step. “The colony may be able to see me through your eyes but hearing is more difficult isn’t it? You can be rid of them, Nik. My immune system will eliminate them all.”
“No you really need to stay back,” I said fighting to stay upright.
“Nik please. Just hold out your hand,” the Doctor coaxed.
In my mind I heard Helis utter one word: “Run.” I felt a rush of energy surging through me. I could see a path to the door. I couldn’t waste another second. I fled out the door into the street, and took off running. I turned a corner, then another. I stopped and leaned against the garage door of a building, panting. I could hear the Doctor calling my name, distantly.
“We’re in trouble Helis. We need to fix this and fast. You can’t live within me forever. Whatever you are doing to me is exhausting. I’ve got to rest. Got to think.”
“The vehicle of colony two is just ahead. Get inside. Find nutrients.”
I spied the car partway down the street. Pushing myself, I got into it and sank into the passenger seat. There was a fizzy drink in the dashboard, although it had gone flat.
“Drink slowly. It will restore some of the energy we took,” said Helis. “We activated your adrenaline response when we sensed you identify Doctor as a threat. We agree we need a plan.”
I slowly sipped whatever was in the container. It tasted delicious but also like burnt mud. I felt a thousand times better. My head was clear.
“What is it you’re doing on our world, Helis? Why did you come to our planet?”
“We do not know. Records were kept by colonies two and three. None of us remain from those colonies. We are Helis colony four- their children upon children. Colony three left us behind to ensure continuation as he feared destruction. That much we know. And that we must return to Micros.”
“Colony three must have been carried by Anthony. I’m sorry Helis. He’s dead and the colony with him. We don’t quite know what happened either.”
“But, Doctor is involved?”
“Yes. His Time Lord physiology is deadly to you. But that’s not something he controls, and the Doctor didn’t kill Anthony. At least I don’t think so. I should have tried talking to him. Why did I run?”
“We gave you not just adrenaline but also fear. It was necessary to escape.”
Helis started whispering in a strange manner. I’d never heard them out of sync before. I heard the phrases “tell him” and “no secret”.
“You’re hiding something from me. What is it?” I said.
“We were instructed. Understand. Records are incomplete, and there is disagreement. But we believe that when we were colonies two and three, we were falsely instructed. To kill. That is why we must leave for Micros. To be judged.”
“I’m very afraid you may be judged here too. We are running out of time.”
“Time’s up unfortunately.” The Doctor stood outside the car looking at me through the window. I scrambled to push the door lock mechanism. “Please back away, Doctor.”
“Am I even speaking with Nik anymore? How long d’you think he’ll last in a car with no heat? If he dies, you’ll die.”
“Doctor it’s still me.” I could feel my heartbeat quicken. “Helis, we have to focus. Fear is unhelpful right now. Doctor, you are effectively a poison to the Micros colony. I cannot allow you to come in direct contact with me. The others could be in danger too. Have you laid hands on any of them? Doctor?”
“Nik listen to me. This colony. They’ve killed. They are dangerous and I think they may be clouding your judgement now.”
I shook my head.“Doctor, they don’t know what happened before. When you examined Anthony and Sarden, it wasn’t just colonies they lost. Their records got lost too. I’m carrying whatever microbes were left on the scarf Anthony was wearing. They know they’ve killed people here. They’re ready to go to their own planet and face judgement.”
“How can either of us be assured of the truth of that?”
“Don’t mean to put it too bluntly, but you’re the assurance you’re looking for. You can still kill them by touching me.”
“Do not allow us to perish,” Helis pleaded.
“I promise,” I said.
“Remember the other colonies. We must know how they fare. Unless they’ve been given what you have, they will not be able to communicate with their host. If they attempt to do so, the host will sicken. Their numbers must be nearly enough by now.”
“Helis, is that what happened to Anthony and Sarden? Colonies two and three were just trying to talk to them? The Doctor said Anthony mentioned a civil war.”
“Perhaps. Yes. There was great turmoil and confusion in colony three near the end. The translation would be rough, not exact as it is for you.”
“Doctor, we have to get back to the others. They aren’t safe,” I said.
“Is the colony threatening you?”
“No. This is all just a misunderstanding. But if their colony five or whatever tries talking to Harley or Lois or John it’s likely to harm them. We need to get back there before that happens.”
“There’s no chance of that,” the Doctor said.
“I made sure of it. I’m sorry Nik. I made contact with everyone except you.”
“No,” I said.
“We are the last,” Helis said.
“Why?” I asked the Doctor, suddenly angry. “WHY!?”
“They’ve killed a dozen people. They could easily have killed you.”
“They wouldn’t have!” I said.
“I couldn’t be sure of that! I had to assume you were c-compromised,” the Doctor said.
I could see the Doctor was beginning to shiver. The cold was affecting him.
“Do you reckon you can last any longer than I can in this cold? We need to come to an agreement,” I said.
“What d-do you recom-mend?” the Doctor asked.
“Promise you won’t harm the colony. Let me draft along with Harley and bring them to Micros to stand trial,” I said.
“Alright. I promise,” the Doctor said.
I opened the car door. The chill was worse in the open and I felt the tiredness returning. “Lead the way,” I said to the Doctor, shivering. He crossed the street and I followed at a couple steps distance. Whether it was the tiredness or the chill or the stress of Helis continuing to use the apparatus of my brain I’ll never know, but my senses seemed dull. My ears buzzed uselessly and the skin of my fingers may as well have been leather. I was two steps from the curb.
Something was happening behind me but I couldn’t quite register it. In front of me the Doctor whirled to see what it was and I hesitated. I wish with all my heart I hadn’t. Behind me, but muffled to my hearing a truck was coming down the street. The driver must not have anticipated the amount of slush on the ground because the truck was sliding, brakes whining, but into my numbed ears the sound couldn’t penetrate. Snow and slush flew and pelted me. I was lifting my foot to step up on the sidewalk. The Doctor reacting and the snow hitting me put me off balance. I could tell my feet were about to go out from under me. There was one sickening moment when I knew I’d die beneath the wheels of that truck. The next instant I was being yanked up onto the sidewalk. Face to face with the Doctor, I was safe. The truck rolled on behind us, not stopping. I looked down at my arm. The Doctor was still clutching it. The bare skin of his hand was against mine. We locked eyes, both sharing a look of horror. I shook out of his grasp. “Helis?” I whispered.
“Our children cry. Save us.” Helis said. The sound was quiet and echoed distantly.
“How?” I asked frantically.
“Our children… cry,” they said again faintly and then nothing else. There was nothing to do but return to the others, get inside, and try to warm up. When we got there the Doctor held the door for me, careful not to touch me, but what was the point? I sat down. Harley handed me a glass of water. My ears were starting to work again and I could hear the Doctor explaining to the rest of them what happened.
“Nik? Can you still hear them?” the Doctor asked me.
I shook my head, beginning to tear up. I kept hearing their last words- ‘our children cry’. Their children cry. Here I was crying over them. Had they cried at the end? Or whatever the bacterial equivalent might be. But surely only humans cried? Then suddenly I knew I got it wrong. They didn’t say ‘our children cry’. They said ‘our children. cry!’
A tear rolled down my cheek. I lifted the drop from my chin and deposited it in my nearly empty water glass. I did the same twice more.
“What are you doing?” asked the Doctor.
“If I’m right I’m saving the colony, or at least their children- Harley, Lois, have either of you got a small container or vial, something that can hold a liquid?” Harley checked her pockets and fished out a small tube with a threaded top. She carefully took the glass from me and poured the few drops of liquid there into the tube and twisted the top down.
“What do we do now?” she asked me.
I took the tube from her. In my hand the clear liquid began to give a faint but ever more noticeable glow. It shifted to various colors of the spectrum as we looked on. “We get them home.”
“I can help,” said a muffled voice. The Doctor was wearing a spacesuit and standing in the doorway of the TARDIS. “Oh it’s safe enough with me in this suit. He turned to go through the door, getting slightly caught up fitting through the narrow space. Finally getting himself inside he called to us, “Who’s coming?”
We landed on Micros. I asked the others to let me go alone. After a few minutes I returned. “The Judicial accepted my testimony and the new colony. And they instructed me how we should alert them in the case of any more suspicious deaths. I think they’re just happy we aren’t going to file charges, as it were. Their main interest is keeping peace with earth. We can go now.”
Back on earth, Harley offered to walk me home. I said goodbye to the Doctor, John, and Lois.
“Are you ok?” Harley asked me as we walked.
“I think so. It’s strange. I miss Helis. It’s like I’ve suddenly lost touch with a friend. Yet the first thing they did was to threaten me. How could I make friends with something like that?”
“They were desperate and you tried to help them. Then an accident almost wiped them out. Of course you feel something.”
“What if they changed my brain somehow- made me like them?”
“Isn’t that what all people do when they interact?”
“They gave me a name, you know; Nik, Helisbonded. Oh this is my place,” I said pointing.
“Here Nik, take my number. You’re a friend to the Circle now. Contact me anytime. Ok?”
“Yeah ok,” I said. I watched Harley use the Effect and she was gone.
“Helisbonded,” I said to myself, and went inside the house.