This is the second story I wrote for the Big Finish Short Trips thing (got it done right before the deadline.) It was also rejected. Heh. Features the 8th Doctor and Charley.
A picnic. That's all Charley asked for: a sunny meadow, a blanket, and a basket of food. Not monsters, not deaths, and not endless chases up and down corridors. The Doctor did his best to oblige.
"Saena Prime, a bucolic paradise of villages in perfect harmony with the countryside. Overly regimented for my taste: they achieve their harmony by regulating every last breath and footprint." The Doctor headed for the TARDIS doors. "Still, it's the perfect place for a picnic, as long as we keep a low profile. Just smell that air!"
Charley followed him outside and inhaled deeply. "I smell smoke." She found its source in the village square below. "People with torches, about to light...a bonfire?"
"Probably some traditional summer celebration. All the better. The locals will be distracted."
"There's an old woman tied to that pole. They're going to burn her!"
"They what?" The Doctor spun around. "We have to stop them!"
He dashed back into the TARDIS and re-emerged with what looked like bright orange guns. "Here. Andromedan fire extinguisher. Point the nozzle at the base of the fire and pull this lever."
They hurtled towards the village, the Doctor using one hand to fish an official-looking card out of his pockets as they ran.
"Everyone freeze! Health and safety inspection!" The Doctor flashed the card at the startled crowd, then dived forward and shocked the growing flames into submission with a spray of white foam. Charley followed suit on the other side. "You are in violation of Regulation 7532 governing carbon combustion in open spaces."
"But we have a permit for the fire!"
"Ah, but not for the smoke. I see no record of form 7532-C on file." Then he muttered out of the side of his mouth, "Knife. Left front pocket." The Doctor aimed Charley at the prisoner. "We'll be taking her, of course, as evidence."
"Now wait just a minute..."
"No time!" The Doctor took the freed woman by one arm while Charley supported her on the other side and navigated back through the mob, brandishing his card as a shield. "Quick, Charley, back to the TARDIS."
"...that's a library card!" shouted the closest torch-wielding villager. "Get them!"
The Doctor dropped the card and the woman's arm to fire foam straight at the man's face. "Not today, thank you. Run!"
They barely made it back to the TARDIS ahead of the mob. The Doctor hit the dematerialization switch while the old woman collapsed, coughing and wheezing, into an armchair.
"Don't worry. We're safe here." Charley fetched the woman a cup of water. "This is the Doctor and I'm Charlotte Pollard."
"Felicity Chen, eternally in your debt," gasped the old woman once she could speak again.
"Well, we could hardly let them burn you at the stake," said Charley.
"Indeed," said the Doctor. "What did they have against you, Mrs. Chen?"
"I'm from off-world. Mistake. Meant to land at Saena Secundus."
Charley eyed the Doctor. "Just as well we left, then. 'Bucolic paradise,' you said?"
The Doctor coughed. "It's been a while since my last visit. I don't remember them being quite so xenophobic. Anyway. Saena Secundus, main spaceport. Will that do?"
The journey didn't take long. The old woman was recovered enough by then to hobble out on her own feet. She marvelled at the blue police box shape. "It's very compact."
"I find it convenient," said the Doctor.
"And the interior! A real eye-opener. A perfect home, except..." The old woman hesitated.
"Except what?" asked Charley.
"It's only my bad taste that I find any fault in it. Except it's lacking one thing. A Nine Happiness White Tiger Clock. Thank you so much for saving my life!" She grasped the Doctor's hand between both of hers. "Good bye!"
Mrs. Chen was soon lost in the anonymity of the spaceport.
The Doctor blinked at the glossy flyer he found himself holding.
"'Come to the Grand Opening of the White Tiger Billion Goods Company,'" read the Doctor. "'Spend one thousand imperial flying tortoises and receive a free gift...'"
"Isn't that redundant?"
"'...of a special collector's edition of our famous Nine Happiness White Tiger Clock. Offer ends soon!'"
"It's a trap," suggested Charley.
"Probably not." The Doctor stared in bemusement at the illustration. "Who baits a trap with something so...kitsch?"
"Oh, please, Doctor. You can't be thinking of going?" Charley sighed. "So, what can you buy with one thousand imperial flying tortoises?"
"About one milligrain of jethrik, or a ten year subscription to the New Galactic Herald. Come on, Charley, let's go."
The journey took no longer than the previous one, though it spanned a greater distance.
"Here we are. Orange yellow green. Remember that." The Doctor nodded at the striped column next to the TARDIS. "I hate forgetting where I parked."
"In the middle of Kitchenware," said Charley. She frowned at the brightly lit displays. "Miles of shelves and not a shop assistant in sight."
"Oh, it's completely automated," explained the Doctor. "It's basically a vending machine the size of a small moon."
"Lovely. I can't say I care much for the background music. Or the merchandise. Do we really need a ---" Charley paused to read the label. "A Draconian egg slicer? Or a salamander grill? Or a cast iron karahi?"
"Mmm. Maybe not," conceded the Doctor. "Perhaps we'll find something more interesting...this way!" He strode off confidently in a random direction.
"Doctor! That wall. It moved!" Charley stopped in her tracks. "So this is a trap after all."
"Nonsense," scoffed the Doctor. "The place is fitted with smart shelves, that's all. They're all the rage in this time zone. A computer tracks your eye movements and deduces via a rather ingenious algorithm where your interests lie, then generates a path to maximize your expected spending."
"It's watching us? Ugh, what a thought!" Charley flung an arm over her eyes and tried to follow the Doctor without looking at anything.
She studied their fellow customers, instead. "Hmmm. Not much of a crowd, for a Grand Opening."
"Well, it's a big place. Besides, places like this, if it's not the Grand Opening, it's the Store Closing sale. I once knew a shop that was officially closing for over ten years."
"Never mind that. Doctor, that man over there looks just like you. I mean, exactly like you, except with shorter hair."
"What man? Oh, him." The Doctor sauntered up to his lookalike. "Hello, there. What do you think of this --- ah --- sonic bread machine?"
"Shuh shuh fablo!" said the man.
"I quite agree. It uses sound waves to make the dough rise. That'd come in handy in the Yeast Exclusion Zone."
"Wunka shoom. Aloka ha ha ha!"
"I see." The Doctor frowned and turned to Charley. "You're right, he does look like me."
"But what is he saying?" whispered Charley. "I thought the TARDIS translated everything."
"It can't translate what isn't there. He isn't really talking at all. In fact ---" The Doctor abruptly swung a hand right through the man's face. " --- he isn't there at all! Randomized holographic reflections, generated to make the customer feel at ease."
"Ekili dekily," burbled the hologram. "Help. Help us. We can't get ---"
"Wait, what did you say? Doctor..."
"Yes, I heard."
The hologram hiccuped. "Ekili dekily. Help. Help us. We can't get." Blip. "Ekili dekily. Help..."
"Sounds like a message. But why is it repeating itself like that?"
"A sign of hasty programming," muttered the Doctor as his holographic reflection continued looping. He squinted up at the ceiling. "The projectors are up there. I wonder if I can access an interface... Charley, hold the shelf steady."
He hauled himself onto the nearest display and climbed. Charley grabbed the edge, but as she followed the Doctor's progress, the shelf slid away from under her hands.
"With your eyes, Charley! Keep your focus on the bread machine."
"Ah, right." She dropped her gaze to the machine. The hologram continued pleading behind her. She heard the whine of the sonic screwdriver, then a click.
"As I thought. Now if I can... Charley!" The Doctor scrambled for his footing as the shelf jerked beneath him.
"Sorry! But someone's coming!"
"Where?" The Doctor dropped to the ground with a thump. "It's Mrs. Chen!"
The old woman hobbled purposefully towards them, shelves parting before her.
"Is she a holo-whatsit too?"
"I doubt it. Or the shelves wouldn't register her presence."
The old woman shuffled to a stop before them. She raised her hands and clapped. The holograms disappeared from all around them in a fizz of static. "A glitch. The White Tiger Billion Goods Company apologizes for the inconvenience."
"Hello, Mrs. Chen." The Doctor smiled. "How pleasant to see you again!"
"'Again'? Forgive me, but you must be mistaken. We've never met."
"Of course we have," said Charley indignantly. "Of all the...wait. Doctor, do you think we've arrived here before she left?"
"No, it's not that."
"I understand." The old woman smiled. "Perhaps it was one of my sisters. We all look the same to you."
"No, it's not that, either," protested the Doctor. "Unless..."
"It's ok! No worries. I am here to welcome you to our Premium Membership Club." The old woman stepped forward to shake both of their hands simultaneously.
"Charley, keep back!" The Doctor dodged away, but Charley was a beat too slow.
"Ow!" Charley snatched her hand back when the old woman released it. The image of a tiger's snarling face was inked deeply into her palm. "That burns!"
The old woman reached for the Doctor. She said sternly, "The upgrade is mandatory!"
The Doctor looked at his hand. "You mean that literally, don't you?"
Then with his other hand, he aimed the sonic screwdriver at her head. It buzzed shrilly. The old woman crumpled. The Doctor caught her and opened a panel on the back of her skull. "And you really do look just like your 'sisters'."
"She's a robot?"
"Something like that." The Doctor fiddled with the controls. "I've switched her power off."
"And the one we met before?"
"Yes. That would explain...yes. The people of Saena Prime have an intense dislike for artificial life forms."
"I'll say. But she seemed so human!"
"In a way, she is." The Doctor frowned. "Hello, what's this? Emergency power?"
The old woman stirred, joints creaking. She croaked, "Emergency program...online. You must...leave...now. She is...marked. Danger."
The Doctor turned to Charley and seized her hand. "What kind of danger? Poison?"
The old woman stood. "Marked for special packaging. Must go to...Central processing." Her voice changed. "Help. Help us. We can't get out. The system won't let anyone leave. We're in Central, but the doors won't hold for long. I can't override the main computer, but I can hack into the emergency protocols and record a message, piggybacked on the PR droids."
"I see," said the Doctor.
"We have to get out of here." The Doctor pulled Charley after him. "Which way to Central?"
"This way." The old woman hurried away, shelves shifting away to give her a straight path. "Don't waver..."
The Doctor and Charley followed.
Then the ground began to vibrate. A deep rumble shook their bones. Something very large and very heavy was approaching.
Charley risked a quick glance over her shoulder. A vast machine rolled towards them, walls prostrating themselves before its bulk.
"The Mobile Packaging Unit!" cried the old woman. "It's homing in on her. Run!"
But more walls slammed shut, barring their escape. The Doctor pushed and glared at the shelves in vain. "They're locked."
"The packer projects an override signal."
Charley searched for something to defend herself with. She settled for what looked like a spear. "It says this Githarian lobster pick can cut through the diamond shells of Githarian lobsters. Let's see what it does to --- agh!"
The pick clattered aside as a scaly steel tendril wrapped itself around her wrist, then reeled her inexorably closer.
"Stop!" The old woman inserted herself between Charley and the machine, clamping her hands over the tendril. Charley felt a shock numb her arm, then staggered back, suddenly freed.
"This way!" The Doctor tugged at her wrist. "I've over-ridden the override."
"Go!" said the old woman. "It will process me, first. That will take time."
"Yes. Thank you, Mrs. Chen!" The Doctor and Charley fled, leaving ominous hisses, grinding whirs, and squeals behind them. But without Mrs. Chen's inhuman gaze to hold their path, the walls turned mazelike again, veering this way and that.
"This won't do!" The Doctor extracted a red cricket ball from his pockets and sent it rolling before them. "Keep your eyes on the ball! Focus!"
At first it seemed to work. Then Charley found blurry images flickering around her, demanding her attention.
"Holographic pop-ups!" said the Doctor. "Ignore them!"
She tried. She could hear the rumbling noise of the machine catching up behind them, and tried not to think about what "processing" might entail.
"Ignore it! We're almost there."
Charley nailed her gaze to the red splotch of the ball. But wait! There were now two of them. Four. Eight. Which one to follow? She couldn't tell which one was real.
Then she realized she couldn't see the Doctor anymore.
Steel whipped around her ankles. Her wrists. Her waist. Coils tightened.
Ice stung at the back of the neck.
"Once upon a time," said the Doctor, "one of the programming geniuses of the White Tiger Trading Company, tired of implementing the headache-inducing algorithms developed by the marketing mathematicians, decided to simplify his work."
It took Charley a long time before she understood that she was awake.
"He said to himself, this genius, that it was obvious that the longer a customer spent shopping, the more they would buy. Thus all he had to do was to program the system to maximize everyone's stay in the White Tiger Billion Goods Trading Company."
It took even longer for her to remember who she was.
"Don't worry, the paralysis will wear off. But you see what went wrong. A careless definition of 'everyone' and 'maximize', and hey presto, the computer responded by packing everyone into stasis bottles and shelving them with the rest of the merchandise!"
Charley tried to speak, couldn't. So how did we get out?
"I reached Central while you were being packaged. After that, it was simple to shut the whole thing down. First, though, I had to get everyone out."
"Ah. I ended up ordering the lot and having everyone delivered to the TARDIS! And do you know, it cost me just over one thousand imperial flying tortoises. And you know what that means!"
Charley finally forced her eyes open. A tiger-shaped clock ticked away on the console. "It's tiny! And...it doesn't match the rest of your decor."
The Doctor's face fell. "No. Isn't that the way it always is? Now, about that picnic I promised you..."