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page twelve

Now, you're probably wondering something. What, exactly, was going on there with me and Peace? I'd chatted with her in the diner and she'd freaked me out a little. I'd met her in a darkened wood and she'd freaked me out a lot. These are not circumstances that generally lead to huddling together on a sun-warmed car bonnet, with her holding my hand and flirting with me (not that I, Britain's Miss Oblivious, realised). 

But here I was, easily chatting about my adventures with the girl who, for all I knew, was my chief suspect. Suddenly, since we'd hugged, really, there was something between us, some secret communication. She was both alien and familiar, uncharted territory that was nonetheless enticingly familiar, like the curving trail I follow up Misery Hill. My breath grows short again, and I pant in my mask. My heart hammers with exertion. But I don't care. I am almost there. 

The Sun has dropped behind the mountain. I am in cold shadow.

I grit my teeth and take measure. A hundred meters away, the mountain ends and the sky begins. Where they meet, a black object is suspended. Indistinct figures mill about it. One detaches and comes down to greet me. So close, now. As I struggle upward my heavy feet crunch through the crust, but she keeps pace atop the snow alongside me, grave and attentive until my story ends.

'I am Luuna'. I can't believe I said that,' she said. 'The last thing I remember is seeing Gamma outside the diner after work. Then I woke up in bed this morning with mom asleep in a chair beside me. Hey, is that jacket warm? What's it called?'

'Puffa-jacket. Yeah, it's warm.'

'I've always wanted a leather one, but mom says she wouldn't be caught dead wearing one.'

'I used to be in a pretty cold place. I don't really need this. You can wear it, if you want.' I started to shrug off my jacket when Sally called, 'Come and get it, ladies! It's not getting any warmer!'

As we swept past into the warm house, Sally held the door. Her expression, I remember thinking,  was bittersweet, like reuniting with a dear old friend at a funeral.

The Doctor held the back of a chair at the head of the table. 'Come and sit, Ace,' he rumbled. I obeyed, and saw Jack performing the same service for Peace at the other end. She beamed at him, he squeezed her shoulder and he did the same for Sally.

As I said, I was at the head of the table, a bay window with a fantastic view of Shasta at my back. A vast array of food stretched before me. There should be servants, I thought, but there was only us. To my right sat Jack, Gladys (in a smart pant-suit), Smokey and Sally. To my left was the Professor and the three weirdos. I wondered why they were there, and sensed something different about them. They lacked the ebullience of yesterday. Now they seemed quiet and watchful. I wondered if this was their real, human personalities, or if they were hosting another set of tourists. I saw the Professor frown at them and was about to ask what was bothering him when I realised Sally was standing.

'It's customary on Thanksgiving to, well, give thanks. I guess the question here is, to who? Peace and I aren't religious, I'm afraid, so if one of you would like to say a few words, I'd be grateful.' She smiled at the assembly and sat. To my surprise the Professor stood up and cleared his throat.

'Hello again,' he said, ' I'll make this brief.'

I coughed meaningfully and everyone chuckled.

'Oh, yes, very droll, Ace. I know everyone is hungry. But before we start perhaps we should reflect for a moment on the meaning of this quaint ceremonial meal. We celebrate a sadly uncommon event, the time when two cultures meet and, rather than quarrel over resources, share them instead. Here we have representatives of not two, but four worlds, sitting down in harmony.'

Peace mouthed, 'Four?' to me from her end of the table. The Doctor caught it and scowled. 'Yes, Peace, four. I speak of Earth, Gallifrey, Zillotti and,' there was that slight frown again, 'Sto. Now, please let me finish.'

'Hang on there, Doctor,' interrupted Jack, 'What's a "galley fray"? Sounds like a fight in a ship's kitchen. I know those other names, but that one's news to me.'

Smokey turned to him, 'Gallifrey is the Doctor's home world, Jack. It's home to the Time Lords, perhaps the wisest, most advanced and, I must say, recently hubristic mortal races.'

'I'll be damned, Doc,' said Jack, 'I thought you were Scottish. Huh!'

'Well, now I've forgotten what I was going to say.'

I laughed. 'I think we got the point, Professor. One big happy family, right? Sit down and eat.'

'Oh very well,' he grumbled. We all were still for a moment, one of the pilgrims frozen in the act of reaching for a roll. The Professor realised everyone was waiting for him to sit. He sat. 'I'm finished! Eat! Eat!'

We all dug in. I was famished. I was on my third helping of turkey when I remembered I hadn't eaten since yesterday's breakfast. No wonder. I watched everyone enjoying the potatoes and wished the Professor had slipped a mickey into the cranberry sauce instead. I consoled myself with sweet candied yams.

Everyone drifted into small conversations. The three weirdos picked at the food and whispered to each other, studying the others at the table. Peace and Sally were speaking in low, serious tones, and I saw Sally sneak glances my way. Smokey was regaling Gladys with magic tricks; her eyes shown and she clapped her hands in delight. The Professor was assuring Jack that Gallifrey was legendarily hostile to tourism when I saw an opening and ventured a question. 

'So, what's that all about, anyway, Jack? Tourists from planet Sto. How on Earth did that get started?' 

'That's a long story, kiddo. What do you think, Doc? Time to show our cards?' He glanced at the Professor, who nodded and said, 'Yes, Jack, I suppose it's time. Sally, you'd better fetch the pies. We're starting.'

He stood and patiently waited. I'd seen the Professor do this before; as I watched, amused, everyone became aware of him and lost track of their conversations. 

Looking mildly surprised to be the centre of attention, the Professor said, 'Very well, Ace, Peace, everyone. Here are all your answers. Some I think you've guessed, some will be news. Yes, Ace, the Illuminated Disciples of the Benevolent Space Brothers is a front for an illegal tourism racket. Rich individuals from the planet Sto pay an exorbitant fund to have their consciousnesses transferred to waiting humans. They wake up in the temple, tour the town...'

'The Four Star package gets 'em a weekend in 'Frisco.'

'...or 'Frisco (thank you, Jack), while the humans consciousness goes... where does it go, Smokey?'

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