The Sontaran’s skin was leathery and brown and it appeared as if he had no neck. His eyes were black and hard and set into the front of his face—a predator, then, if the actions of his people weren’t signal enough of that. Wrinkles creased his skin around his mouth, frown lines etched into his face as if with acid. He glared at the Doctor, dripping with menace.
"Oh my god," Ross said softly.
The Doctor rocked on the balls of his feet. “And your name?” he demanded, less than impressed.
"General Staal of the tenth Sontaran fleet!" the alien snapped back. "Also known as Staal the undefeated!"
The Doctor ‘tsked.’ “That’s not a very good nickname. What if you do get defeated? Staal the not-quite-so-undefeated-anymore-but-never-mind?” Rose grinned but kept her hand near her gun. It was set to ‘humanoid,’ but she wasn’t sure how the Sontaran was classified, or what affect her gun would have. Psychokinetic wavelength disruptors could be tricky, especially as she didn’t particularly want to kill anyone unless absolutely necessary.
Ross was still staring at Staal. “Looks like a potato,” he said. “A walking, talking, baked potato.” His eyes were wide but he kept his gun trained on the scowling alien.
"Don’t be rude, Ross," the Doctor chided. "You two look like pink weasels to him, well," he grinned at Rose, "pink and yellow." He picked up a tennis ball and racquet that were lying on the floor and fiddled with them. Rose was used to his ADD-like tendencies, but she could tell that Luke, in particular, found them confusing and rather annoying. "The Sontarans are the finest soldiers in the galaxy," he went on in the same tone he used when explaining alien cultures and habits on TARDIS trips. Whatever the Doctor believed his primary purpose, Rose always saw him as a teacher. He was almost never happier than when he was lecturing about some bit of alien culture. “They’re dedicated to a life of warfare—a clone race grown in batches of millions with only one weakness.”
"Sontarans have no weakness!" Staal interjected, rage making his voice even flatter than usual. Rose’s hand twitched, but the Doctor remained relaxed and she took her cue from him.
"Oh hold on, it’s a good weakness!" he protested.
"Aren’t you supposed to be clever?" Luke asked, his eyes wide with fear instead of wonder. "Only an idiot would provoke him!"
"I have been called that a fair few times," the Doctor conceded. "But really, the Sontarans are fed by a probic vent on the back of their neck. That’s their weak spot." He grinned. "They always have to face their enemies. Isn’t that brilliant? They can never turn their backs."
"We stare into the face of death!" Staal asserted.
The enthusiastic interest which accompanied the Doctor’s instruction faded from his face. “Yeah?” Well, stare at this.” He threw the tennis ball into the air and slapped it towards the teleport. It ricocheted and hit Staal square on the back of his neck—directly over the probic vent. Staal yelled and dropped to the ground. The Doctor grabbed Rose’s hand and bolted for the door, Ross hard on their heels.
"What did you do?" Luke cried, the fear naked in his voice. "What did you do!
”Greyhound forty to Trap one can you hear me? Repeat, can you hear me? Over.” The Doctor held the radio and waited for a response. He was met with static. “Bollox!” He tossed it on the back seat. “Sontarans must be blocking it. How long ‘till we reach the factory?”
"Ten minutes at our current speed," Ross responded, his eyes fixed on the road. He was breaking the speed limit by several kilometers but the police wouldn’t stop a UNIT vehicle. Although the Doctor would never admit it, there were some perks to belonging to an organization that was affiliated with the U.N.
"If they can trace that," the Doctor said slowly, "they can isolate the ATMOS on this vehicle." Rose’s eyes widened. Fifty-two deaths in the same second—could they be next?
"Turn left," the computer voice instructed.
"Try going right," the Doctor suggested.
Ross turned the wheel but the jeep continued on its path to the left. “I’ve got no control,” he replied, eyes wide. “It’s driving itself!”
"The doors are locked!" Rose cried as she jerked at the door handle. The Doctor pulled out his sonic screwdriver and buzzed it at the doors.
"It’s been deadlocked!" he snapped. "I can’t stop it!" Ross pulled the wires connecting the Satnav screen to the dashboard but nothing happened. "That’s just a viewer," the Doctor pointed out. "The ATMOS device is wired into the car itself. You’d have to pull the whole thing out."
"I don’t think we’ve got time for that!" Rose pointed out as she gestured to the path in front of them. They were drawing near to a river. "That journalist, the one who was investigating Luke Rattigan, she crashed into the river, right?" The Doctor nodded. "Well, I think we know why," she said. Ross frantically tried to stop the jeep, but it was to no avail. The car continued to speed towards the water. She pulled her sleeve up, uncovering the dimension cannon and frowned as she reset the coordinates. It was tricky, estimating where they were. She wasn’t exactly familiar with this part of the country, not like she was with London.
"What are you doing?" Ross asked beside her. She grabbed his hand and placed it on top of the Cannon’s face.
"Keep it there!" she commanded, and then grabbed the Doctor’s and placed it over the soldiers. She held their hands down with her own and activated the Cannon. There was a jerk, and then the world went black.
A split-second later reality was back and Ross was on the ground, retching. The Doctor shook his head slightly, as if to clear it. She was relatively unaffected. Thirteen years of jumping had allowed her body to acclimate to the Cannon’s affects, although she remembered feeling wretched the first time.
"That," the Doctor proclaimed, "is a vile way to travel. How can you stand to move through Time if it can’t handle Space? Mind you, it’s a sight better than Jack’s Vortex Manipulator.”
"What, no ‘thank you, Rose, for saving my miserable life?’" she demanded from her position on the ground. "No ‘I was wrong to expect that you would leave your Dimension Cannon at home and I’m ecstatic that you ignored me and managed to teleport us out of the car and thus avoiding our previously inevitable death?’"
"I would have thought of something!" he protested. She glared at him, arms crossed over her chest. He rubbed his neck sheepishly. "Right. Well. Thanks."
She pushed herself up off the ground and held out a hand to help pull Ross up. “You’re welcome.”
"D’you think you could take us to Donna’s Mum’s house?" he asked tentatively.
"D’you have coordinates for that?" she shot back.
He stuffed his hands in his coat pockets. “Um, on the TARDIS.”
She sighed and rubbed at her eyes. A spectacular headache was brewing. They’d fought—never pleasant, that—and now they were without transport. But, he had apologized, and in front of Luke Rattigan, boy genius. He’d admitted that he was occasionally (frequently) wrong. For the Doctor that was significant. He went on and on about his ego, proclaiming himself brilliant, taking pains to remind everyone that he was a genius. It sounded like arrogance, but Rose couldn’t help but wonder if he kept extolling those virtues because he didn’t really believe he possessed them.
She could stay angry and get a headache and probably make everyone around her generally miserable, or she could let her irritation go, perhaps avoid a migraine, and help the Doctor figure out what the Sontarans were up to. She knew what she was going to do. Really, it was the only thing she could do. So she took a deep breath and rolled her eyes at him. “Not much good then, are they?”
He fidgeted. “You can jump without them.”
She shook her head. “Dangerous, that. Almost ended up jumping into a wall once. Not a good way to die.” Her lips twitched into a half-smile. “Get ready to walk, gentlemen. We’ve got a companion to liberate.”
One hundred and eighty-three minutes and seventeen seconds later a slightly bedraggled Time Lord stood on the front porch of an ordinary-looking house in Chiswick. Rose stood on the steps just below him as Ross searched the nearby cars for one without ATMOS. The Doctor pressed the bell and a few seconds later the door swung open.
"You would not believe the day I’m having,” he told Donna with an expression of long-suffering patience on his face. The ginger woman did not look impressed.
"So, visit to the Academy go well then?" she asked as she followed Rose who followed the Doctor.
"Yeah." The other woman flashed her a grin. "With a name like ‘Rattigan’ he just had to be one of the bad guys.” She expected an answering grin or chuckle, but Donna just looked at her blankly. Rose sighed. Donna was around ten years older than her apparent age, and had missed out on the Disney movies that made up her childhood. At least she knew that the Doctor found the coincidence amusing. “He’s working with the, what was it, Sontarans—” the Doctor squeezed her hand in an expression of pride. God, but it used to take her forever to be able to pronounce some of the words he just threw out there. “to do whatever they’re doing on Earth. And then they tried to kill us and I saved all of our lives,” she finished.
"And not a thank you from that one, I’ll bet." Donna understood.
Rose smiled. “Not as such, but we’re working on it.”
"And this is why I stopped traveling with multiple companions," the Doctor muttered as he let go of Rose’s hand to open the hood of Donna’s car. "They keep ganging up on me."
"We’ll stop when you stop deserving it," Donna replied. Behind them the door to her house opened and closed. The Doctor was oblivious, locked in contemplation of the ATMOS technology, but Donna turned towards the sound. Her granddad was coming down the steps towards them.
"Is it him?" he called. "Is it the Doctor?"
Rose glanced up from her position slightly behind the Doctor and blinked. It was the old man from the newsstand, the one they’d spoken to on Christmas Eve. She tugged on the Doctor’s sleeve, pulling him out of his reverie.
"What?" he asked her, frowning slightly. He hated interruptions.
"It’s you!" the old man, Donna’s granddad, said, wonder making his eyes wide. "It’s both of you!"
The Doctor glanced over at him and then straightened, blinking. “Oh,” he said slowly, “it’s you.”
Donna glared at both of them. “What, you mean you’ve met before?”
Her granddad nodded. “Oh yeah, Christmas Eve! He disappeared right in front of me, him and that girl and that other girl.” He looked around. “Where is she, huh? That other pretty little blonde girl in the funny dress.”
A shadow passed across the Doctor’s face and Rose squeezed his hand in silent reassurance. “She’s—not traveling with us anymore.”
Her granddad opened his mouth to say something but Donna cut him off, apparently still stuck on the fact that the two men and Rose had met before. “And you never said?” she demanded of him.
"You never said!" he replied and turned back to the Doctor. "Wilf, sir, Wilfred Mott. Donna tells me you’re one of them aliens."
"Someone’s been telling tales," The Doctor replied with a look in Donna’s direction. She, however, had proven to be almost impossible to frighten, even with the look. “I am, yeah, but don’t go shouting it about now,” he continued in a much more relaxed tone. “Nice to meet you properly, Wilf. I’m the Doctor, and this is Rose.”
She smiled and shook his hand. “S nice to meet you. Donna says lots of nice things about you.”
"Right, Donna!" The Doctor seemed to be remembering that she was there. "I need you to call Martha and tell her it’s the Sontarans. UNIT needs to know." The ginger woman pulled out her phone and dialed as the Doctor rattled off Martha’s number.
"Blimey, I can hardly remember my own," she noted.
"Genius, me," the Doctor responded smugly. "Lots going on in this great big brain."
"Not answering," Donna said after a few moments.
The Doctor stared at the cars that lined the street around them. “What are they up to?” he asked no one in particular. “Can’t just be remote controlling cars—there’s got to be more to it.” Behind them Martha finally answered and Donna relayed the Doctor’s warning. Meanwhile, the man himself poked at the ATMOS device with the sonic.
"You tried that earlier, at the factory," Rose reminded him. "Nothing happened."
"Yeah," he conceded, "but now I know it’s Sontaran. Gives me a better idea of what to look for." He fiddled with the screwdriver and buzzed it again.
"Thing is, Doctor, Donna’s my only grandchild," Wilf interjected. "You gotta promise me that you two will take care of her." Donna rolled her eyes as the two men ignored her existence.
"Me take care of her?" the Doctor asked, eyebrows trending towards his hairline. "She takes care of me! Well, she and Rose do."
Wilf laughed. “Oh that’s Donna all over. ‘The Little General,’ we used to call her.”
Donna smacked his arm. “That’s enough tales, gramps!”
"Whoa!" The Doctor jumped back as rows of spikes shot up from the smooth surface of the ATMOS device. "It’s a temporal pocket," he explained as he pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. "I knew there was something else hidden in there! It’s just a second out of sync with the rest of reality. Question is," he paused to examine the spikes more closely, "what are they hiding?"
"Men and their cars." Another, feminine voice, drifted over to them. Donna’s mother was coming to investigate. Rose and the Doctor were bent over the engine, with Rose concealing most of the alien from view. "Sometimes I think that if I was a car," Donna’s mum began, but stopped as the Doctor straightened to greet the newcomer. "Oh, it’s you, Doctor—what was it?” The venom was back in her voice.
"Yeah, that’s me." He waved a hand at her and then bent back over the ATMOS device, scanning it with the sonic. Rose straightened and smiled at the new woman.
"What, you’ve met him as well?" Wilf asked.
"Dad!" Donna’s mum exclaimed. "It’s the man from the wedding! Remember, when you were laid up with Spanish Flu? And who are you then?" She turned on Rose. "When he showed up Donna disappeared, did he do that to you too? Does he wander around kidnapping women?"
"He didn’t kidnap me, Mum!" Donna bit back.
"So you say!" her mother snapped.
"Look, I’ve been traveling with the Doctor and Rose," she explained. "I ran into them after that Adipose Industries thing happened and they offered me a place on their ship."
"They sail?" Her mother did not look impressed.
"Yeah, all over," Rose jumped in. "We were in Italy a bit ago, went to see Pompeii and everything."
Donna’s mum narrowed her eyes. “I still want to know what your relationship to this, man is, Donna.”
"For heaven’s sake!" Donna was getting angry now. She hated when her mum was like this, so suspicious. Granted, she’d been a bit wild when she was younger, but that was years ago. "Rose is his girlfriend, I’m just along for the ride."
A strange hissing noise came from the vicinity of the engine and a thick white smoke bellowed out from the ATMOS device. “Get back!” the Doctor snapped. “We can take care of domestics later!” He aimed the sonic at the ATMOS device again and sparks began to fly. Slowly the gas dispersed. “That should take care of it.” He waved his hands around the engine, bringing in clear air and speeding the dispersal process.
"He’s blown up the car!" Donna’s mum screeched. "I told you there’d be trouble, and what kind of doctor blows up cars anyway!"
Donna rolled her eyes. “Not now, Mum,” she said in the way people have when they’re encountering a familiar annoyance.
"Oh, should I make an appointment?" the woman snarked and stormed off. Rose shot Donna a compassionate look. She’d had her share of run-ins with her own mum over the Doctor and she suspected that Martha had as well. He just had this, affect, on mothers.
"That wasn’t just exhaust fumes," he said and breathed the air in again deeply. He was tasting it, smelling it, analyzing its chemical composition. Rose knew because she’d seen him do the same thing thousands of times. It was incredible just how sensitive his taste buds and nose were. He’d licked her arm once just after she’d put on lotion and proceeded to tell her exactly how many chemicals it contained. The experience had put her off lotion for a week. "Some sort of gas," he continued, "an artificial gas."
"It’s aliens, then." Wilf’s eyes were wide.
"But if it’s poisonous," Donna began.
The Doctor nodded. “Then we’re all in danger. Everyone on Earth.”
"They’ve got poisonous gas in every car on Earth," Donna continued. She glanced around. All of the cars lining her street had the familiar ATMOS logo sticker displayed prominently on the back windshield.
"It’s dangerous sitting right here," Wilf asserted as he closed the hood and moved to the driver’s side. "I’m going to get it off the street." He slid into the car. The driver’s door closed behind him and the locks clicked into place. The car started and thick white gas poured from its exhaust pipe.
"Don’t!" the Doctor yelled.
"Granddad, get out of there!" Donna cried as she yanked on the handle.
Wilf held up the keys. They weren’t in the ignition, but the engine continued to run. “It’s not locked!”
The Doctor buzzed the sonic at the locks and the windows. “Nothing! It’s been deadlocked!” White smoke began to swirl around the inside of the car. Wilf coughed as he struggled to open the locks. It wasn’t working. The smoke became thicker and his struggles slowly became weaker. If they didn’t get him out soon he would die—suffocated by the alien gas.
The Doctor grabbed his hair with both hands, his eyes wide and staring. There was nothing he could do. He couldn’t get Wilf out and the sputtering roars that echoed down the Chiswick street signaled the activation of the other ATMOS devices. The whole world was going to choke and he had no idea how to stop it.