image

by Casey J



The Doctor ignored the dull throbbing pain in his body, the cause of which he couldn’t quite remember, and concentrated on his surroundings. An old gramophone was playing one of his old Billie Holiday records quite clearly over the voices of children and the whoosh of the high surf. The startling magenta ocean in the bright sunlight.

He was standing barefoot at the waterline on the shore of a sloping beach, the pale white sand mingling with the vivid purple vegetation beneath a sunny lilac sky. Huge, tentacled jellyfish were playing in the surf while smaller versions of the creatures played with seaweed nets to catch barnacles from the tidal pools.

Orbis. The water planet he’d made his home for over six centuries, a world of peace and childlike joy that he had been willing to abandon his travels for. There he’d been Old Doctor, the revered and beloved biped protector of the Keltians, who’d felt more like his own people than the Time Lords ever had or probably ever would.

Even as he wondered just what was going on, he realized that he was standing near a patch of vivid magenta grassland where an ornate picnic had been set up. Through the gloom he could see people sitting or lying on a rug, drinking and eating. A young woman with dark blonde hair was stretched out on a beach blanket with her back to him, chatting with a teenager in a dark green bikini top and yellow shorts.

“Lucie?” the Doctor called, slowly approaching her.

The teenager looked up at him with a crooked smile. “Eh-up, it’s him indoors!” she grinned. “I was wondering when you were going to turn up!”

Her companion rolled over to look up at him, fanning her eyes with her hand. “Typical,” she chuckled. “Just when we were about to get to the really juicy gossip!”

“I know.” Lucie jabbed a thumb at her friend. “We were just getting to the bit where you two went to fifth base together trying to out-evolve the sound of your own footsteps! And I thought things got well-bonkers when I was around!”

“Charley?” repeated the Doctor dully. “This can’t be happening.”

“Oi,” warned Lucie. “Us human ladies are capable of decorum, you know? You don’t need them bodyguards from Jerry Springer to stop the cat-fights.”

Charley put down the biro she’d been jotting thoughts down in her journal. “Though it was a bit awkward at first,” she admitted. “Lucie here seemed to be expecting some kind of grand dowager covered in cobwebs like Miss Haversham…”

“Well, you hear someone’s from 1930, you automatically assume they’re ancient,” the Northern girl replied. “At least you do when you’re from 2009…”

The Doctor shook his head and looked past them to the rest of the beach. Further up the beach, a woman with long dark hair was reciting some audition piece to the delight of three teenagers, a redheaded brother and sister and another young man with neck-length dark brown hair. “Tamsin, Samson and Gemma and Alex… But what are you all doing here?” he spluttered, turning to Lucie and Charley. “I thought you were all dead.”

“Mind like a steel trap, him,” Lucie told Charley, who giggled.

“This can’t be happening,” said the Doctor firmly. “You can’t be here.” He glanced around. “Here can’t be here!” he added. “Orbis was destroyed as well!”

“Come on, Doctor,” Charley said, sitting upright. “It’s not exactly the biggest riddle we’ve ever faced, is it? If everyone’s dead and Orbis is destroyed and you’re seeing both of them together all of a sudden…”

“It’s like The Sixth Sense,” Lucie chipped in. “Only without any creepy little kids. Or that one with Nicole Kidman in the old house and the mad hair.”

The Doctor didn’t smile. “The afterlife? You expect me to believe that?”

“You believe in something,” said a voice behind him. “And that’s all that matters.”

The Doctor turned to see someone moving through the surf towards him, dressed in a hideous Hawaiian T-shirt and a broad-brimmed straw hat. His armored, leathery flesh was picked out in shades of purple like his surroundings.

“You too, C’rizz? I should’ve guessed,” he observed. “As good as it is to see you all again, you’re probably some kind of hallucination. I’m not quite up to date with your current situation, but are you literally here in front of me?”

“No,” the Eutermesan admitted calmly. “But, to be fair, you’re not either.”

The Doctor let out a sigh and nodded. “So, if this isn’t a hallucination to get me through a painful experience, some disembodied intelligent tormenting me with visions of loved ones, then you are the genuine articles who have joined the Choir Invisible. And look at you all,” he murmured, gazing at the people frolicking on the beach. “Without fail, each and every one of you believed in me and look what happened to you.”

“Oh no,” Charley groaned. “He’s going all moody again.”

“There’s no hard feelings, Doctor,” Lucie assured him. “You saved us all so many times, it’d be a bit pigging rude to complain about the one time you didn’t.”

“Quite,” said C’rizz, slightly embarrassed at her summary.

“But I know how you all died,” the Doctor said coolly. “But not how I died. Is that usual for the recently-deceased?”

Lucie looked thoughtful. “Guess so. If it’s pretty violent and sudden, you get a while to settle in and relax before you have to face it all. Dunno if it’s a rule or not.”

“As you can imagine,” Charley added, “that is how most of us got here.”

“And why didn’t I regenerate?” asked the Doctor. “What happened to the TARDIS?”

“Oh, don’t tell me,” said Tamsin Drew, brushing the dark hair out of her eyes as she approached. “He’s only been here five minutes and he’s trying to start a rebellion?” She flashed a smile to him. “Long time, no see, Doctor.”

“I wish it could have been in better circumstances, Tamsin.”

“The story of our lives, eh?” the actress sighed. “Anyway, it seems you crashed the TARDIS into some kind of viscous time field or other, and you both burned. Not as impressive as how some of us went out, but we can’t all be Lucie Miller.”

Lucie preened. “Oh yeah. I set the standard high, me.”

Charley propped herself up on one arm and gazed adoringly across at her. “You’re truly an example to us all, Lucie! And you’re so modest, too!”

“Eh? Sorry, I sort of switch off when someone else’s talking…”

The Doctor watched them all laughing, then turned and stumbled away through the surf. There was a strange, alien feeling of total contentment in his hearts. He never wanted to leave this place, his friends, his family, and even the blanks in his memory seemed comforting. “Amnesiac anesthesia,” he said out aloud.

“How are you feeling?” asked C’rizz.

“On top of the world,” he replied in a detached voice. “This really is everything I could ever have dreamed of. And why else would it finally happen unless I died too?” He looked back at C’Rizz, at the Keltian bloom-children laughing in the surf and his other companions chatting and laughing. “I’ve come home, C’rizz.”

The former monk nodded. “I was worried there would be nowhere for me to go,” he admitted. “This isn’t my universe, and when I died there was no way for me to go back to the beginning to start again. Yet there is a place for me alongside all the others.”

The Doctor glanced at him. The Eutermisan was always so deadpan and serious, it was hard to tell if he being sarcastic or not. “I didn’t forge your signature on some kind of existential mailing list, if that’s what you’re asking.”

C’rizz chuckled and looked out at the jellyfish frolicking happily in the waves. Butterflies fluttered through the air. “This is ours, Doctor. We earned our place. We deserved it after lives of hardship and pain helping whenever we could. And we did not do it in the knowledge this would be our reward.”

“Because that would defeat the point, I suppose?” asked the Doctor, wondering what happened to others, to Davros and the Master and all the others. Eternal suffering? Non-existence? Condemned to repeat their lives all over again? If Daleks did reach an afterlife, they’d do whatever they could to make sure no one else had one…

C’rizz said something else, but it was lost over the surf and the terrific drowsiness washing over the Doctor. The beach and his friends to be slipping away, blurring and fading away into the cloudy darkness of deep, deep sleep.

***

Cold grey sunlight was streaming into his eyes as he awoke. He was lying on a bed, in a loose-fitting white shirt which was stained with mud, blood and soot. His feet were bare too, and his wriggled his toes. “Who am I?” he mumbled thickly, his words slurring slightly as he blinked and focused his vision.

The bed was in a triangular room that seemed to be built into the roof of a larger building, some kind of attic bedroom. Dust sheets covered other objects around, chests and crates and incomplete suits of armor. Taking up most of the free space was a tall, square blue box with large square windows in the upper half. It looked grubby and filthy, the paint chipped and burnt away in places, the windows cracked and stained – but one of the narrow doors in the front stood open invitingly.

TARDIS.

The thoughts seemed to fall into place inside his head, and the Doctor turned to look at the other person there. “What am I doing here?” he asked her, a teenage girl with long brown hair, dressed in a long dark gown and corset that left her shoulders bare. She was standing beside a mirror that cast his reflection. But then it occurred to him that he couldn’t see any frame to the mirror, that his reflection was not lying in the bed, and not dressed in his clothes. Nor was the reflection copying his movements.

It wasn’t a reflection.

It was another him.

“Oh no, it’s you!” he complained, face twisting into a grimace.

Crossing your own time-stream and encountering an earlier incarnation was one thing. Bumping into an earlier version of the same incarnation was just messy, like when two versions of his sixth self collided trying to drop off and collect Melanie Bush at the same place and the same time. Or when he’d tried to break into Caerdroia and been split into three identical versions of himself, the good and the bad and the normal.

“Hello, Doctor,” the other version of him replied, with forced politeness but no welcoming smile. “How’re you feeling?”

“Fine,” he sneered, annoyed by the condescending tone and also the fact that he was actually feeling better. It just seemed to emphasize that he was the one lying helplessly in the bed like some sick, patronized old relative instead of the one lounging around looking handsome and enigmatic. He must look a sight to his younger self…

…except, he knew that he did. He could remember looking down at himself, unimpressed and unnerved at the gaunt and humorless man he would one day become. And also, that his future self would be so slow on the uptake to actually notice.

“Oh no!” he groaned, closing his eyes in embarrassment. “I remember! This happened before, didn’t it? The other way round? I was you and now, I’m—”

“—the other one, yes,” concluded the younger Doctor flatly.

He nodded, focusing his thoughts on what he remembered from this long-ago encounter and also from recent history. Yes, the memory was coming back. He’d been running a Dalek blockade, avoiding the temporal storms with ease and navigating them when he had to. But then it seemed his luck had finally run out. The TARDIS’s defenses crumpled under the pressure and the burning, corrosive forces of vitreous time gutted the time machine and its owner like a forest fire. His body had been hideously scorched, but the temporal infection prevented regeneration from being triggered.

And so he’d lain in the ruins of his beloved ship, tormented with memories of people he’d never met yet always known – his timestream as agonized, delirious and broken as his body. The TARDIS had crash-landed outside the Villa Diodati one storm-wracked night in June, 1816. He’d stumbled through the rain towards the front door, but the inhabitants hadn’t exactly been helpful; a bunch of over-privileged pseudo-intellectuals telling ghost stories and taking laudanum. There’d been the cruel Lord Byron; his weak-willed physician John Polidori; the lunatic Percy Shelly, his novelist wife Mary and her stepsister Claire. They’d given him some cursory medical care but, when he’d slipped into a deep-healing coma, they’d mistaken him for dead.

He could easily have forgiven that, but then Byron hadn’t decided to use his “corpse” for an experiment with a lightning conductor. The electrostatic charge was what he needed, of course, and what the TARDIS had brought him here for – but the fact remained they’d used his body for kicks and saved his life entirely by accident. The vitreous infection was burnt out of him but he’d been left agonized, delirious and almost insane. Dimly, he was aware of going on some kind of rampage before returning to his crippled time-ship, where his condition had stabilized briefly.

Only Mary Shelly had possessed either the bravery or the compassion to try to help him, which was unsurprising. She had (or rather would one day) travel alongside him for years, fighting Cybermen and Axons, witches and zombies. She had helped him send a distress signal before his unstable renewal failed him and he’d gone mad with rage again. That signal had summoned the same TARDIS and the same Doctor from an earlier point in the timestream, and they’d come to the rescue. A borrowed power sell from the “younger” TARDIS allowed his version to repair itself, and also the symbiotic damage that had been inflicted on himself. A renewal more than a regeneration.

“It’s all coming back to me,” he said out aloud. “The temporal storm, the Villa Diodati and you! No, don’t tell me – aren’t you with Samson and Gemma at the moment? Didn’t you abandon them in Vienna?” he accused angrily. Samson and Gemma were perfectly all right, of course, but this casual attitude to them would cost them dearly one day.

He remembered being the younger Doctor, surprised at the anger and scorn, and now he was the older Doctor, he knew the reason for that rage. He would ignore any advice, because he always would, and that was why he’d want to give it in the first place…

The young Doctor broke the circular train of thought. “In case you’ve forgotten,” he said calmly, “I was answering a distress signal – the one you sent? ‘Time Lord in need of urgent assistance!’”

“I’m sorry,” interrupted Mary, raising a hand and looking at the man in the bed. “But, just to be clear in my mind, you’re an older version of the Doctor?” she asked.

“Well, yes,” he replied, rather defensively. “But as far as I’m concerned, he’s a younger version of me. It’s all relative.”

“Right,” said Mary, still frowning. “But you shouldn’t both be here, at the same time?”

“No, absolutely not!” the Doctor said, irritated as his younger self spoke in perfect unison. “You do have a point, Mary. His very presence could cause a paradox of cataclysmic proportions…”

“What are you talking about?” protested his younger self, bewildered. “You’re the one whose presence would cause the paradox!”

The Doctor pushed away the bed-clothes and got to his feet, ignoring the well-merited groan of frustration Mary was emitting. “I should leave. Doctor,” he said briskly as he passed the naïve innocent he’d once been. “Nice meeting you, but we should do this less often. Take good care of yourself. After all, if you get yourself killed before you’ve become me, it would—”

“—would have disastrous consequences for the web of time?” completed the younger Doctor with an arched eyebrow. “Yes, yes, I am aware of that! And you look after yourself, because I won’t always be around to save you.”

The Doctor paused in the doorway of his TARDIS and stared at the man he had once been. “You?” he repeated disbelievingly. “Save me?” The impudent, arrogant little upstart! he thought. That’s exactly the attitude that’ll let Davros, Rassilon, Zagreus and all the others destroy everything you have! Truly, free will is wasted on the young! “Right, that’s it! Goodbye, Mary. Goodbye, Doctor!”

***

The TARDIS control room was almost unrecognizable. It had regenerated its interior structure, repairing and replacing the scar tissue left from the temporal storm and leaving nothing of the Victorian Gothic steampunk cathedral-like desktop theme he’d been stuck with ever since he’d let Ace and Hex do the decorating.

Now the TARDIS had upgraded itself to the same design used in contemporary time-ships, from troop transporters to battleships – all more modern and better-equipped to deal with vitreous time storms. It was stark, functional and not designed with any personal taste, wants, wishes, politics or agendas in mind. Only the police box exterior retained anything approaching individuality.

“Oh well,” he muttered. “I suppose it’ll make a change to be fashionable for once.”

The control chamber was much smaller, a round chamber made of gleaming grey metal honeycombed with circular depressions, each glowing cell wider than a dinner-plate. The pattern was rather pleasing to the eye, the Doctor had to admit. The control room’s roof was still vaulted, with the thin crystalline time rotor connecting the ceiling to the now-circular control bank. The once-hexagonal console platform was now a circular metallic floor plate up through which cool grey light shone. The spider-like metal support beams surrounding the platform had been transformed into Y-shaped sculptures that twisted and branched like trees, and tangles of insulated cables and wires hung between them.

The Doctor took a moment to familiarize themselves with the new layout, the console resembling a roulette table made out of metal and a sloping glass substance, framed in the same thick coral-like substance making the supporting struts. It was slightly unsettling; the equivalent of seeing bone poking through gaps in the flesh.

He checked the monitor display mounted to the base of the time rotor, with a keypad built into the shelf beneath the screen. It was acting as the external viewing screen, showing the younger Doctor and Mary Shelly in the attic bedroom outside.

Remembering his determination to leave, the Doctor’s hands moved over the controls. Although unfamiliar, there was a logic to layout every Time Lord instinctively understood. He moved around the console, re-calibrating the dials and settings and finally releasing the handbrake control, now built into one of the coral frames.

The glowing translucent columns within the time rotor began to rise and fall with the familiar trumpeting of dematerialization. The scanner display changed to show a mint-green display of spinning circles and cogs, the operating system now coded to Military Gallifreyan Dispatch. Every message was now unreadable to any non-Time Lord.

The Doctor stared at the screen, remembering what would happen next. The younger Doctor and Mary watching the TARDIS dematerialize, Mary amused at the Time Lord’s odd attitude to himself. And then as Shelly and Byron argued downstairs, he would offer Mary a place aboard his own TARDIS and the adventures and excitement her husband had promised but never quite provided. And she would accept it and while the others would barely notice her absence for a moment, they would have so many years of fun and excitement together…

The Doctor suddenly felt incredibly envious. And incredibly lonely.

***

The new desktop theme extended to the wardrobe section, but thankfully the contents seemed to have survived the rebuild – or at the very least the TARDIS fabricators had reproduced all the garments he remembered accumulating over the centuries and hung them all neatly on racks. As he regarded the endless variety of hats, coats, evening dresses, wet suits, uniforms from every imaginable period and planet, he resigned himself to the unenviable task of finding fresh attire.

The old Wild Bill Hickock outfit from San Francisco had been lost lifetimes ago, but he’d always found close-enough replacements from the wardrobe section, even after Orbis. After being caught in the mud and trenches of the Great War when he first met Molly O’Sullivan, just after losing everyone in that bloodbath with the Daleks, he had settled for whatever clothes he could find. A blue military leather coat and a satchel had been the only constant, but now they too were gone – destroyed by vitreous time, lightning strikes, thunder storms and probably Lord Byron’s sticky fingers.

Perhaps he should settle for something of a compromise between the two outfits? Something that harkened back to the happier times, but not ignoring the present. He started searching through the hat stands, shoe racks, tie-racks, tailor’s dummies and wire-frame mobiles until he found what he wanted.

He found a clean wing-collared shirt but decided not to fully-button it up to the neck with a cravat, in the manner of what Lucie would call “a ponce”. Instead he let the point of the collar droop across his shoulders, and he forwent a silk cravat for a ruffled midnight-blue ascot he bundled crookedly around his uncovered throat. A bronze-grey waistcoat with a fob watch already in the pocket was too good to miss, but again he didn’t bother to button it completely. His lower half was covered by wrinkled tan trousers haphazardly secured with a slouching belt, tightening the s-link chain buckle as he did so.

As always, finding footwear was the toughest part. Eventually he settled for a pair of British Army Calvary boots and a matching set of leather soldier’s gaiters to protect his shins. He spent more time trying to lace and knot them than actually finding them, and finally gave up and focused on finding another coat.

He found an ocean-green velvet trench coat, and although he hesitated, finding a working sonic screwdriver in the pocket tipped the balance; he needed another one after his improved wooden-model was destroyed in the temporal storm.

At last the Doctor stood before a full-length mirror and admired his reflection. The renewal process had grown his hair longer to form messy, drooping curls but there were hints of grey amongst the chestnut. The crow’s feet and laughter lines around his face were more prominent, making him look older and fatigued. The stubble and tanned skin remained, in contrast to his younger self’s well-groomed neatness and composure.

In a way, he looked like a shell of the man he had been – the walking wounded.

Yet, the renewal left him feeling refreshed. The emotional weight of bitterness and guilt had eased off, leaving him calm and relaxed. It was almost like the clean slate sensation of a new incarnation, the first day of something new. He had a vague image of friends laughing of a beach, which made him smile.

“Time to go back to work,” he decided, and set off to the control room.

***

The Doctor spent most of the journey trying to work out how to restore the homely, lived-in feel to the décor and had failed to come up with anything by the time he reached the console. Dismissing the idea, he grabbed the laptop-monitor and pulled it around the console to face him. The TARDIS was plowing through vast distances of colorless black space rather than risking the increasingly-dangerous temporal storms on the vortex.

Twice bitten, once shy as the old misquote went.

The screen was visualizing their flight, when suddenly something else came into view. A fleet of spinning bronze saucers, gliding in a tight formation of circular clusters – millions of Dalek kill-cruisers, with enough resources to devastate an entire galaxy. Thankfully, they were on a routine patrol maneuver; they were traveling to a specific point in space so when they time-jumped into either past or future, the expansion of the universe meant they would arrive in a completely different point in space. The one positive was that these Daleks were too busy to do anything other than reach their destination. As long as you kept out of their way, they wouldn’t come after you.

“Who would have thought the War would have taught them tolerance?” he mused, watching the waves of saucers slide past the display.

Nonetheless, it troubled him that Dalek fleets were moving through these territories. His new base of operations was a unique space-time event that meant that nothing and no one could sneak up on it, but robbing the Daleks of their stealth wouldn’t actually slow them down if they began a planetary assault. All it would do was ruin the surprise.

All too soon a glistening ash-pink world in a frozen orbit filled the screen, reminding him just how close the Daleks were to diminished sphere of Logopolis. The entropy backlash of 1981 had stripped away most of its surface until its mass was no more than an average-sized moon. The Logopolitons and all their civilization had been obliterated, leaving a tiny empty world overlooking the rest of creation.

Nonetheless, it was perfectly-placed as a base of operations. The Doctor’s allies had none of the bad memories he associated with Logopolis, seeing only the positives and of course the selfless inhabitants would have wanted their world to be used in such a way. Yet every visit felt like he was pushing his luck, going somewhere he really, really shouldn’t – but then, there wasn’t anywhere safer for him to go.

The rapidly-shunting time rotor strained and flashed as the TARDIS came into land, before its protests faded into silence. The aeon-old defenses were still in place, more powerful even than the transduction barriers of Gallifrey and not even a TARDIS could land there without vetting. The Doctor checked the ship for any teleport breeches or anomalies that could suggest that something was trying to smuggle itself down – he’d been the unwitting Trojan Horse once before in 1981. The cataclysm that followed was not a coincidence and he did not intend to be fooled again.

There was thick chirping noise and the display screen image changed to that of a cluttered workshop, the foreground filled with the head and shoulders of an attractive woman with long, straight black hair. Her high cheekbones and sharp-clean features were ageless, as androids don’t age but her ice-blue eyes showed the sentience that she and her own people had fought a bloody war to prove existed.

The Doctor had met Deeva Jansson (or Security Operative CGH/14) during the Orion Wars when she was attempting to harness the conversion technology of the Cybermen to aide the war effort. He’d convinced her to abandon the scheme on moral grounds, and she’d ended up flung off into deep space, sacrificing her life-support systems to save the Doctor’s companion Charley Pollard. It had taken a long time to find Deeva again, and then there was another, much more devastating war unfolding.

She was one of the allies he had helped recruit to set up the refugee world on Logopolis, and with her combination of ruthless logic, flawless beauty and a very deadpan sense of humor she was almost the only thing stopping it falling apart. It seemed that she had added to her list of duties ground control work; it made sense for their most intimidating resident to be the one greeting strangers, he supposed.

TARDIS identify,” Deeva said frostily.

The Doctor sighed and thumbed the communicator control. “Deeva, if I didn’t want to be instantly recognized, I’d have fixed the Chameleon Circuit by now. Well, put on my ‘To Do’ list, anyway,” he added as an afterthought.

The android arched an eyebrow. “Do you have any idea how many refugees, looters and warmongers have tried to bluff their way in using police boxes?” she challenged.

“But none which are programmed to have a St. John’s Ambulance badge on the front door when in flight-mode,” said the Doctor triumphantly. “Doctor on call!”

Is that why you’re late? Did you have another detour of mercy?

“Something like that,” he replied vaguely.

You have a visitor waiting for you.

The Doctor sighed, guessing who she was referring to. “Grundle has a whole market town to entertain him, he won’t mind a few delays.”

The open-air markets that had been set up on Logopolis were beginning to rival the Garazone Bazaar. Merchants and traders and smugglers hawked their wares and displayed their goods on trestle tables or in elaborate shops or directly from their shuttles. You could buy almost anything there from old-fashioned bound books to government secrets, computer components to hand-crafted jewelry, illicit drugs to braided cloaks. Given the state of the universe nowadays, everything was equally vital and useless to own and trade, but it was a kind of occupational therapy if nothing else.

I’m not referring to the Urodelian Garundel,” Deeva replied calmly. “Though he has been on Logopolis for the last twenty-two days. I’ll detail someone to collect him for you. Your other guest, however, is a bearded gentleman waiting for you in your workshop.

“Should I be worried?” asked the Doctor, quite serious.

Romana was convinced he was no immediate danger.

He smiled. “To her or to me?”

Why not see him and find out?” suggested Deeva, rolling her eyes. “Clearance granted to enter Enclave Logopolis. Basic transponder codes authorized. Deeva out.

The screen changed from the communication channel back to routine circular animations, casting an emerald glow across his hands and face.

“Have I mentioned how much I love all these tedious security measures?” he asked himself wearily. “I suppose I must have; I suggested most of them, after all…”

The Doctor’s fingers danced over the keypad beneath the monitor, typing in the algorithm that would allow him entrance through the might surging energy fields around the planet. The TARDIS slid with painful rigidity into flight, a tense smoothness that suggested a knife was at its throat and preventing any sudden movements.

With a weary, strained crescendo and an echoing thump, the TARDIS engines fell silent. The Doctor turned around to face the main doors, noticing for the first time that the real-world interface connecting the interior and exterior of the TARDIS had changed as well. Instead of the internal doors leading to a black spatio-temporal void which in turn lead to the interior of a police box, there was now a large circular gap in the roundeled walls. The gap was filled with a pair of white-painted wooden doors with frosted windows, and a telephone attached to one square panel – perfectly matching the inside of a police box.

No longer was there a simple red lever on the console to flick to release the door mechanisms automatically. He’d have to do it himself from now on. Thanking himself his TARDIS was stuck in a shape with proper conventional doors, ones he’d now have the fun of slamming himself, he crossed to the doors and thumbed the brass latch of the lock into the open position. With his other hand he twisted the oval brass handle and the door swung inwards on creaking hinges.

His workshop was one of the many storage bays in the prefabricated bases Enclave Logopolis was made up of. There were Fifth Empire survival bunkers, Nekkistani habitation cities, Leptonican survival domes, all tangled together in a messy but logical layout providing living quarters, barracks, medical units and security cells. The Doctor was based in the main control centre of prefab flat-pack Kastronian design.

The windowless complex was full of keyhole-shaped archways with asymmetrical-shaped door panels, translucent partitions breaking up metal-floored halls with a random collection of weird Willy Wonka décor that spread from walls to floor lit by strange curving lamps. He’d tried to make his two-tiered work area a bit more homely with some bric-a-brac from the TARDIS; heaps of clothes, scientific equipment, a stuffed albatross with wings outstretched hanging from a ceiling, a large photograph of Albert Einstein with his tongue out, an old-fashioned roll-top deck cluttered with tea cups and vases, and a 1970s circular art deco television set he had taken apart to turn into a time-space visualizer. The upper area was left more-or-less empty as a landing pad for the TARDIS.

As Deeva had warned, someone was waiting for him to emerge from the police box.

It was a tall, ruggedly-handsome man with dark-red hair swept back from a widow’s peak into a glossy wave and a goatee beard covering the square jaw of his otherwise smooth, tanned face. His eyes were an intense, shiny black that hinted at a harder and more astute personality than the rakish grin of vivid white teeth. The man wore an immaculate dark blue overcoat, richly-embroidered with gold and scarlet at the collars and cuffs, while rings glittered on his long fingers.

The Doctor recognized his visitor at once and instantly reached behind him and pulled the door to the TARDIS shut. There was a loud click as the bolt slid in the lock, and then silence fell across the workshop once more.

Finally it was broken as the newcomer spoke. “So, we meet again, Doctor,” he reflected in a soft, persuasive voice.

“You,” the Doctor breathed.

“Me,” he agreed, his smile not reaching his eyes. “Were you expecting someone else?”

“As a matter of fact, I was. What do you want, Zimmerman?”

***

“Oh, where the pigging hell is he?” grumbled Daphne for the umpteenth time.

She had been driving her ground-car through the streets of the central bazaar near the vast landing bays for over an hour now, and given that the markets that dominated Enclave Logopolis and the ground-car could only move at minimum speed through the crowds, she’d hardly begun her search for the Urodelian she was after.

As an android, Daphne shouldn’t have been irritated and frustrated by the waste of time but her personalized settings gave her the very human quality of impatience. She had originally been constructed by the galaxy-spanning organization known as the Consensus to assist the Doctor maintaining the control systems stopping an unstable sun to collapse and wipe out billions of people. Although the Doctor had been a prisoner of the Consensus, he remained at the solar complex of his own free will, refusing to leave until he was sure the sun would not explode without him. After six years, the stalemate had been broken. The Doctor had resumed his travels, leaving her to assist in the dissolution of the Consensus and a new, less-repressive regime to control the nine star systems.

Then the Doctor had returned, older and harsher and less care-free. He needed help and, since he’d programmed Daphne to be loyal, eager, earnest and with a sense of humor she was the perfect companion and assistant. Since her work with the Consensus was over, Daphne had agreed to join him in setting up Enclave Logopolis and providing some kind of sanctuary as the Time War waged out of control.

It had been hard work, but as always, it was the little things that seemed impossible.

Like finding the camp-as-Christmas walking salamander for his appointment.

Garundel wasn’t the only Urodelian on the Logopolis, and Daphne’s sensors weren’t precise enough to differentiate between them. In fact, it was a miracle she could detect them at all amongst the hoards of refugees that made up most of the population. Between Urbankans, Moroks, Navarinos, Cetenes and Tharils, it was easy to overlook the few non-time-active races that also sought refuge in the Enclave.

Ultimately, she happened on him purely by chance. Glancing through the slatted of her barrel-shaped transporter, she caught a glimpse of a light-bulb-headed figure haggling with a shopkeeper between two tents. The prominent amber eyes were the only real facial features, no nose and a lipless mouth full of blunt little teeth. His body looked like a hairless kangaroo or wallaby, but lacking a tail and softly-creased grey-silver flesh. The sunlight made his grey flesh look particularly greasy that day.

Daphne pulled the ground-car to a halt on the other side of the street, wound down the window, stuck her head out and let the LM language file select an appropriate greeting and salutation for this particular scenario.

“Ere! Grumble-bum!” she yelled at maximum volume.

The Urodelian twisted his head to face her. “Excuse me, sister?” he drawled.

“Yeah, you!” Daphne yelled back. “I’ve been looking all over for you. Why couldn’t you be getting hammered at one of the taverns? It’d be so much easier to find you…”

“Well, maybe you’d have found me sooner if you said my name correctly, sweetheart? I,” he continued, pressing one webbed claw to his chest, “am called Gah-roon-dell. Three out of my four mothers can get it right, I’d assume a gynoid like you working for Time Lords could manage it!”

“Why aren’t you in your quarters?” Daphne demanded.

“That poky little apartment?” Garundel snorted. “Please, girlfriend, I do not come to a Time Lord enclave and get a hotel room smaller on the inside than the out, capisce?”

“Bully for you. The Doctor’s turned up and you’ve got a meeting.”

Garundel checked the digital timepiece strapped around his slimy wrist. “Goodness gracious, is it that time already?” he gasped with mock-astonishment. “By which of course I mean thirty-two days after when he was supposed to show up?”

“Oh, stop yer moaning yer stupid ponce and get in!” Daphne yelled.

“If I must,” the Urodelian sighed and scuttled around the transporter to clamber into the passenger side. As he pulled the sliding door down and it clicked shut, Daphne activated the engines and they motored off through the markets.

Garundel glanced at his uncouth chauffer. She wasn’t much taller than him, a slim mammalian humanoid with sharp facial features and long jet-black hair. Her dark locks and pale skin mirrored her monochrome outfit of a white shirt, black trousers and logo-free trainers. Her eyes were hidden behind a pair of Ray-Bans sunglasses, quite unnecessary in the sunlight. Some people said the eyes were the windows to the soul; and while Garundel wasn’t interested in that philosophical concept, he knew that the eyes were the hardest thing for android makers to engineer to be indistinguishable from organics. You could spot a facsimile a light year off if you could see their eyes, and it seemed this android wanted anonymity. Which was rather odd given the high number of mechanical life-forms on Logopolis.

“Why the shades, sweetheart?” he asked. “Ashamed of the silicon or what?”

“Nope.”

Garundel glanced at her ridiculously over-endowed chest. “If you say so. But why hide your eyes? Aren’t they as pretty and blue as one of those fancy Orion droids, like the oh-so-appropriately named Diva with the flight controllers?”

“I’m not from Orion,” grunted the android as they made a rough turn around a corner. “Entirely different era, totally different civilization. And my name’s Daphne.”

“No nominative determinism there,” Garundel agreed.

“The Doctor named me.”

Had he possessed an eyebrow, Garundel would have arched it. “What imagination that man has!” he said with insincere admiration.

“Could’ve been worse. He could’ve named Green-Dull.”

“Garundel!” he corrected her snappishly. “Politeness costs nothing, you know – or did he program your behavioral protocols as well?”

Daphne glanced at him but said nothing.

“Oh,” said Garundel, dragging out the monosyllable for a full six seconds. “Well, this sure is an awkward conversation. Shall we change topics and ask just how anatomically-correct that android body of yours is? I’m no expert on mammals but you were definitely built by some lonely tech with unrealistic expectations…”

“They say Urodelians can regrow anything,” Daphne interjected cheerfully. “You want to put that to the test? With a chainsword, maybe?”

“Oh, wriggle the other pseudopod, honey,” sneered the Urodelian. “If the Doctor programmed you, you couldn’t so much as give me a noogie. Now accelerator to the deckplate. Time is money and the way the War’s going, both are running out!”

Daphne ignored him, concentrating on heading out of the bazaar and through the trees that backed the main complex where the Doctor’s workshop was based.

***

The Doctor didn’t know much about Zimmerman – but he knew enough.

Dr. Nikolaus Zimmerman was from Drornid, a planet in the same solar system as Gallifrey which had been driven to near destruction by a schism between Time Lord colleges. Drornid had recovered to be the top holiday destination in the universe, but before that it had been an apocalyptic wasteland of bitter and resentful people with access to Gallifreyan technology. Zimmerman was one of many who had gone out into the universe to seek their fortune and barter a better life.

Unsurprisingly, he had soon been recruited by the Time Agency – but following the Screamer Wars and the dissolution of the Time Agency, he had gone rogue. With his infamous homemade temporal whip – an energy weapon that could cripple, kill and even dematerialize any time sensitive it touched – he soon built up a reputation of cruelty, violence and dangerous intellect. He began to cross the galaxies, seeking out any time technology, stealing it, selling it to the highest bidders and rarely leaving any witnesses.

The Doctor had met Zimmerman shortly after he began traveling with Lucie Miller. They’d arrived on a planet in the Isop Galaxy where the time sensitive locals had been enslaved and brutally-tortured by Zimmerman’s temporal whip to scan for an time ships he could salvage. The Doctor and Lucie had managed to overthrow Zimmerman, but not before he’d located a Meg-Bania time scaphe, an ancient derelict in the vortex that could make him the richest man in creation. Wasting no time, Zimmerman boarded the scaphe, stripped out all the useful technology and fled, leaving the primitive vortex-dwelling descendents of the Meg-Bania, the Tar-Modowk, to destroy the rest.

However, Zimmerman’s escape pod malfunctioned and he was spat out into a garden maze outside a manor house in the English countryside in the year 1987. He was eventually rescued by a kind and wealthy woman of Hungarian descent called Rachel Davidson. With his looted technology destroyed and nowhere else to go, Zimmerman stayed with the Davidsons at the pub they ran, fell in love with Rachel, married her and eventually bought the manor house with the profits from her own real estate company. However, their domestic bliss came to an end some three decades later when Rachel contracted a terminal illness. In desperation, Zimmerman managed to forge a time loop around their last perfect day, Rachel’s birthday party, holding back fate.

With typical irony, the time loop itself drew the Tar-Modowk to Zimmerman’s sanctuary and began to break through. The Doctor and Lucie had been forced to shut down the time loop altogether to banish the time monsters, but in doing so meant allowing Rachel to finally die. Zimmerman had been left, heartbroken and devastated, cradling his dead wife in the ruined birthday party. The Doctor would have stayed to ensure the situation was resolved, but he’d been forced to leave when Lucie was kidnapped.

For the Doctor, that had been the best part of seven centuries ago. He had no idea how long it had been for Zimmerman, or what he’d been up to in the meantime.

“You’ve been keeping well, I see,” Zimmerman said at last.

“Oh, so-so,” the Doctor replied sociably. “And you?”

“I can’t complain. I stayed on Earth for a while, until poor Gordon died, then I found an old friend from the Time Agency.” Zimmerman grinned again. “He gave me a lift back to civilization, but the next thing you know the galaxy is being torn apart by Daleks. And then Daleks from a parallel universe. Then exploding Daleks. Then, after the best part of two millennia of rebuilding, a virus that turns you into Daleks.”

The Doctor nodded. “The Tenth Dalek Occupation,” he observed. “Still, I’m sure you can skip ahead now the Dalek Empire has all its focus on the Time Lords.”

“That rather sounds like cheating, Doctor.”

“And cheating rather sounds like something you’d do.”

The other man chuckled, then sighed. “If there’s no way of getting round something, you’ve just got to plough straight through it, as I always say.”

“Well, you might as well plough straight through to the reason why you’re here.”

“I thought everyone seeking sanctuary was welcome here,” Zimmerman pouted.

“To Logopolis, yes, to my workshop, no,” the Doctor replied. “And you’re the first Time Agent, or even ex-Time Agent, to run to this enclave instead of heading back to the Vegas Galaxy and waiting for the whole thing to blow over.”

Zimmerman tutted. “It’s hard being a trendsetter, but I thought I’d do the waiting-for-the-whole-thing-to-blow-over right here, in Enclave Logopolis, like you.”

“You knew I was here?” asked the Doctor, arching an eyebrow.

“I was told,” he admitted. “In actual fact, I had absolutely no idea this little bolthole existed – you and all the conscientious objectors hiding out here while the war rages on. Oh, Gordon would have had a fit if he could see this. He detested cowards!”

“You think I’m a coward, I think you’re a shameless narcissistic criminal,” the Doctor replied, trotting down the ramp to the lower area. “We’ll agree to differ.”

“My brother-in-law considered pacifism cowardice,” Zimmerman replied. “I’m not quite so rigid, but so many people are calling you the Coward, Doctor. You’re too weak to fight, too scared to take action. I’ve actually defended your reputation on more than one occasion; hell hath no fury like a Doctor scorned. But it seems the Daleks are never going to let it lie. You used to be the only man they feared and now you’re the only person they’re actually disappointed by…”

“The Bringer of Darkness, the Destroyer of Worlds, the Oncoming Storm, now the Coward,” the Doctor reflected. “The Daleks have another nickname for me. Now, are you going to tell me why you’re here?”

Zimmerman nodded. “When I was told about this planet and you and what you’re doing… or, to be accurate, what you’re not doing, I just had to see you in person. I honestly expected some other Doctor to turn up, not you.”

“I’m glad I can surprise you. Now get out.”

“I did just want one thing,” he said, hands raised placatingly. “I was wondering if you could explain something, and then I’ll leave.”

The Doctor sighed impatiently and checked his pocket watch. Garundel should be here by now. “All right, Zimmerman, get on with it. What mystery baffles you?”

The other man rolled up his right sleeve to reveal a leather-bound device strapped to his wrist. The Doctor saw at a glance it was a Time Agent-issue vortex manipulator and omni-tech interface. Zimmerman lifted the leather flap and fiddled with the glinting controls underneath and a flickering blue hologram spluttered into existence in the air between them, a round bubble filled with pixels.

“This is a recording I found,” Zimmerman explained. “It’s of you and Kalendorf the Avenger, Knight of Velyshaa, former Lord Chancellor of the Galactic Union, having a chat. Edited highlights, of course.”

The holo-sphere showed the interior of a vast hall lined with columns of grey marble. There was the pitter-patter of rain in the background, while two men moved into view. A craggy-faced old man with a grey stubbly beard, dressed in a heavy coat and sunglasses as if seeking anonymity. Beside him stood the Doctor, slightly younger, in his blue leather coat and satchel. The two were talking in grave, earnest tones.

Why are you here, Doctor? Is there something you want from me? This is a strange place to look for a confessional…

What do I want? I want the same thing you do, Kalendorf. I want peace.

But are you willing to destroy for it?

On the screen, the Doctor shook his head. “This is a mistake. I shouldn’t have come here. I should go.

You have the ability to exterminate the Daleks, Doctor – if what they say about you is true, you always have!” accused Kalendorf, shaking his head.

There has to be another way!” the Doctor snapped angrily. “Why does it all have to end in destruction, old soldier? Can you tell me that? Why does it have to be death?

The old soldier stared at him for a long moment. “You have a choice, Doctor. It’s hollowed you out, hasn’t it? Such a great, awful choice to make.

The Doctor sighed. “The chance to free the universe of the Daleks, but the price is everything I know.

This is the price, Doctor!” Kalendorf howled. “Every child, every being that lives is under threat so long as the Daleks exist! You must make the choice, Doctor, whatever it is, whatever it costs you.

On the screen, the Doctor turned and walked away, leaving Kalendorf alone.

Zimmerman thumbed a control on his wrist-strap and the holo-sphere emptied, shriveled up into a sparkle of light which retreated into the projector. He turned to look at the Doctor with a not-entirely-friendly expectant expression.

The Doctor yawned, his arms folded. “What part in particular were you having trouble with?” he asked dryly.

The other man’s expression hardened. “I want to know why aren’t you fighting the Time War?” he demanded icily. “Especially after what happened with Kalendorf.”

“I made my choice. And my choice was no.”

The Doctor turned away, suddenly interested in a heap of junk and objets d’art heaped up in the white plastic bucket chairs. He seemed to have forgotten that Zimmerman was even there. As insults went it was crude and unsubtle, but incredibly annoying.

“And now the Daleks are on the warpath, cutting their way through the universe,” he reminded the Time Lord angrily. “It’ll be less then five millennia before they run out of planets to conquer and people to exterminate. They’ll wipe out all life everywhere. The Daleks will be all that’s left. You don’t need to be some naïve idealist to want to stop the massacres and genocide. There is no room for high-and-mighty principles in war!”

“No, Zimmerman, war is when principles are needed the most,” the Doctor chuckled, shaking his head as he found an old force-knife between a set of broken bagpipes shoved down a dusty leather golfing bag. A force-knife used a controllable force-field rather than metal for a blade, sharp enough to cut through atoms and molecules, its length adjustable from less than a quark to over a metre. It could slide through matter as if it wasn’t there. Idly he played with the control in the hilt, make the blade appear and disappear.

“Then surely your principles are needed,” Zimmerman said reasonably. “Where they can do the most good – on the front line…”

“I take it the Time Lords sent you,” the Doctor replied, still studying the knife as the blade shimmered in and out of existence. “Things not going well?”

“Things could be going perfectly,” Zimmerman retorted. “If you were fighting. The war started with you. Skaro. Davros. Two wires. Any of this ringing a bell?”

The Doctor carefully adjusted the shape and length of the force-knife, still not turning around to address Zimmerman. “The Time Lords fired the first shot, not me. Not that the Daleks needed an excuse, of course. But you can’t blame me for the War – we blame the one who pulls the trigger, not the bullet fired from the gun. Any suffering and chaos is not happening in my name, which is all you seem to think matters to me.”

Zimmerman smiled an unpleasant smile. “I heard what happened to Lucie.”

The Doctor stopped fiddling with the knife. Zimmerman could see he was now very still, the pretense of idle boredom gone completely. Yet the Time Lord’s voice was as casual and uninterested as before. “I daresay everyone heard what happened to Lucie,” he said at length. “She didn’t die quietly.”

“No,” Zimmerman agreed. “She didn’t.”

He reached to his wrist-strap and adjusted the controls. Immediately a crackling, distorted but nonetheless intelligible recording began to play. It was of a breathless, upset young woman with a common, unrefined Earth accent.

You come here, you mess up my planet, you mess up my life and now you say you’re going to kill the best bloke I ever met!

“Turn it off,” ordered the Doctor quite calmly, still not turning around.

You think I’m going to just – what? – bleeding surrender? Well all I can say is that you don’t know me, you don’t know me at all!

“I said turn it off,” the Doctor repeated in his toneless voice.

And, just in case you wanted to know who it was who blew you to pieces, the name is Lucie Miller! You got that? LUCIE BLEEDING MILLER!

Suddenly the Doctor spun around, flinging the force-knife across the workshop directly at Zimmerman’s unprotected face. It skimmed within a milimetre of his left ear and effortlessly impaled itself into the oddly-patterned wall behind him, looking as though it had always been there and no force in the universe could move it.

Zimmerman didn’t scream or cry out or noticeably flinch. But a nervous glance at the knife and faint unevenness in his tone betrayed just how rattled he’d been by the sudden act of violence. Licking his lips, he tried a more conciliatory approach.

“Doctor. Believe me, I am not unsympathetic. I know how debilitating grief and failure can be. It stops you functioning, it makes you defeatist and passive, convinced all you can do is make things worse. You realize how precious life is and you realize no one else cares. Grief blinds you to pragmatism. But the longer you’re inactive the more people will die and the more you’ll tell yourself it’s not your fault because at least you didn’t fail in saving their lives…”

The Doctor stared at him, his thoughts unreadable. “You really think any of that applies to me?” he asked eventually, a trace of contempt in his voice.

“Tell me it doesn’t,” challenged Zimmerman, “and keep a straight face.”

The Doctor let out a sigh and turned away, pacing the length of the chamber. “That was one of the initial battles, when hostilities were still breaking out. I lost almost everything that day. Not just Lucie, but my family and friends were butchered. Earth gutted twice in as many decades. And I was unable to stop any of it.”

“And what did you do next?” asked Zimmerman cuttingly. “Go back to the Daleks’ beginning and exterminate the whole lot of them? No, Doctor, you just ran away from them, over and over again. I expected more. Wasn’t Lucie worth a jihad? Didn’t the Earth deserve to be avenged?”

The Doctor turned to look pityingly at him. “You say I should have wiped out the Daleks? As if it was as easy as flicking a switch? If it was so simple, someone else would have done it by now – wouldn’t they?”

“But you have a responsibility…”

“Responsibility?” roared the Doctor, not disguising his fury. “You have been bettering yourself, Dr. Nick! I didn’t think you knew the meaning of the word – or even cared if you did! What examples you set, enslaving time sensitives, making a fortune from the deaths of millions, marrying your way into riches and fortunes and then using a time loop to ensure you never had to deal with the consequences of your actions!”

Zimmerman raised his chin slightly, eyes narrowing in anger.

“Tell the Time Lords if they want to bully me into signing up, they should try sending someone with the moral high ground next time,” he said coldly.

“All of them are too busy fighting, Doctor,” came the rejoinder.

“Well then. Tell them just not to bother.”

Zimmerman’s face twisted in disgust. “I can’t even pretend to be surprised!” he sneered. “A freeloading renegade like yourself, too squeamish about killing Daleks to save lives! You’re just a stunted egotistical adolescent, trying to impress as a radical individual and recapture some old glory you lost long ago!”

The Doctor smiled sadly. “I’m sorry, Zimmerman. You seem to think that I have to live my life according to some superficial and very biased pre-existing opinions you have of me. So, I disappoint you. I do the unexpected. An unheard-of distortion of my established characteristics and a betrayal of my Van-Helsing style archetype.” The smile faded and he turned to head for the exit. “Tough.”

The ex-Time Agent called after him. “You’re part of this, Doctor! You were there at the beginning, you let them live. You let them re-spawn themselves out of the human race. You lead them to the Library of Kar-Charrat, and with that knowledge they ravaged the known universe. Galaxies have been decimated, whole species have been rendered extinct because of your actions!”

The Doctor glanced over his shoulder. “Yes, that’s pretty much the size of it,” he agreed brightly. “Best I keep out of the way, given I’m such a liability. Because you can fight the Daleks with insane ruthlessness or idealized mercy but neither can vanquish them for long. They cling to life out of some insane grudge, and I’ve never truly defeated them. Not once. But that’s the point, Zimmerman. You’re looking at it the wrong way. My mission to Skaro was a failure to murder the Daleks in their cradle, but I still saved the lives of Thals and Mutos, I got my companions out of there alive. That’s what made it a success. The people I save, the worlds I help, from Exxilon to Red Rocket Rising, that’s what counts. Not a row of notches marking how many Daleks I’ve blown up.”

Zimmerman opened his mouth to speak, but the Doctor didn’t give him the chance.

“The one time – the one single time – I ever took the fight to them, deliberately set out from scratch to hunt them down and lure them into a trap with the Hand of Omega, it cost me my friends, the Earth, most of the human race, maybe even my own sanity. An eye for an eye, Zimmerman, leaves the whole world blind.”

“And what about all the death and horror and war?” he rasped with a scowl.

“There are other options.”

“Why don’t you explain that to the trillions of people who will die in the meantime?” the Drornidian shouted, his composure in tatters. “Misery and cruelty are spreading all across the cosmos thanks to your neglect!”

“I can’t be everywhere, I can’t save every world or the countless billions who’ve already died. I never could and I never will be able to. I’ve saved whoever I can – and that’s a damn sight more than you have ever done!” the Doctor shouted back.

“Aye-aye,” came a voice from behind them. “We interrupting something?”

The Doctor and Zimmerman had been standing toe-to-toe, so close their noses would have touched had Zimmerman not been the taller of the pair. As one, they both swung around to face the keyhole-shaped archway to the workshop where Daphne and Garundel were standing. The former was concerned, the latter wryly amused.

“We can come back latter while you sort out the domestics,” the Urodelian offered, then glanced up at Daphne. “Never good to get involved in lover’s tiffs…”

Zimmerman grimaced and pointed at Garundel. “Who’s this? Another pacifist?”

“I prefer the term Good Samaritan,” Garundel replied haughtily.

“A mercenary,” concluded Zimmerman with distaste.

“Or speculator,” Garundel agreed thoughtfully. “Or collector. Takes one to know one. Weren’t part of that Time Cartel – Arkadian, Hart and Zimmerman?” He frowned. “I’m not judging, red, but seriously those in-flight infomercials of yours were bad. Morality be damned, your testimonials were so badly-acted I was ready to swear off crime! As a matter of fact, I think was willing to swear onto crime in the first place just so I—”

“And you ally yourself with this newtish parasite over the Time Lords?” Zimmerman asked the Doctor, sickened. “You want to avoid action you insist you’ll never take while you wallow with bottom-feeders and some android replacement for Lucie?”

“Hey!” Daphne snapped. “I’m not a replacement for anyone!”

The Doctor rolled his eyes. “You’re right, Zimmerman, I should have taken my cue from you and nearly destroyed a planet with a time loop around Lucie so I could wallow in my denial and simultaneously lord it over all the innocents trapped inside?”

“Oh-kay-doe-kay!” said Garundel, clapping with claws with a wet slap. “Let’s just keep this biographical details between the four of us and also the string of therapists who won’t be able to help either of you…”

“Shut your pet toad up, Doctor!” Zimmerman sneered.

Garundel sighed. “To think, even in the 51st Century, there’s still mammal-centric racism. Well, little apeman, time’s-a-pressing. Give him a banana or something, Doctor, while we get to this top-line strategy consultation you’re very late for.”

The Doctor nodded. “Best suggestion I’ve heard all day.”

“You’re not driving the ground car, mate,” Daphne told him as they headed towards the exit. “The streets are packed and someone who actually knows their way round the Enclave gets to call shotgun.”

“Why can’t we just head there in the TARDIS?” asked the Doctor.

“Temporal traffic congestion. We’re almost at capacity, you know…”

Zimmerman was left alone, abandoned in the workshop. It took him a moment to register the situation and jogged over to the archway so he could shout down the hall at the retreating backs of the trio. “You’re allowing this suffering to happen, Doctor!”

The Doctor stopped and looked back at him. “You’re not going to shame me into action,” he said simply. “I don’t care what you think about me. I don’t care if the Time Lords curse my name or the Daleks snigger that I am a coward. I am not getting involved and it takes more than some name-calling to provoke me. You should have thought of that before you dropped by for a chat. See yourself out.”

The group continued, leaving Zimmerman behind without another word.

***

Of all the complexes on Logopolis, the administration base had the greatest air of permanence. Though all the prefabricated buildings were designed to be dismantled at a moment’s notice should the Daleks attack, the base of operations seemed too solid and efficient to be going anywhere. The mere sight of the unprepossessing collection of domes and corridors cheered the Doctor up as he, Daphne and Garundel approached.

No one spared the group a second glance as they made their way into the admin centre. Enclave Logopolis was a safe haven for anyone and everyone trying to avoid the Time War, and all manner of life form could be found there – ardent pacifists, deserters from all sides, refugees seeking new lives, and even criminals fleeing justice. There was always the risk of a spy infiltrating the enclave, a carefully-placed Dalek agent entering their midst and getting past the routine checks. So far they’d been lucky, but as everyone seemed to be saying nowadays, luck didn’t last forever.

At last they arrived at the conference room where the rest of the renegade Time Lords spent their time working to keep Logopolis running and unite families and populations scattered across the planet. It was a worthy task but one that demanded more patience and concentration than the Doctor was prepared to offer; he often spent more time in the field hospitals treating the sick and injured.

As usual, the rest of the quartet were at their usual positions around the conference table, each checking their personal terminals for the latest data streams. The Doctor’s own one had mysteriously jammed itself onto a computer game about a brave explorer braving twelve levels of haunted Mayan ruins, though for some equally mysterious reason he still hadn’t got past the second stage of the waterfall.

“Welcome to the War Without End Room,” the Doctor said to Garundel as they entered.

Immediately they were approached by a medium-sized woman with eerily-pale skin, long brown hair and ice-blue eyes. She was dressed in a loose tweed trouser suit and a woolen beret sat lopsided atop her hair, as though she’d just stumbled from beatnik poetry club in 1930s France. Her long brown hair was worn in the style of feudal Japan, with perfectly level bangs trimmed just above her upper eyelids and side locks level with her shoulders. Her pale eyes were an unsettling shade of ice-blue.

“There you are,” she breathed, flinging her arms around the Doctor in a manner that belied her wistful, distant words. “Brilliant. Come here. Hug.”

“Hello again, Romana,” the Doctor grinned.

“How I’ve missed you,” she said, but Garundel thought she didn’t sound concerned – more like she was about offer a bribe. “You look a little different.”

“There’s still some life in this old body yet.” The Doctor dropped gratefully into his white formica bucket seat and addressed the others present. “Sorry I’m late everyone – you wouldn’t believe the traffic conditions out there!”

Garundel watched the door to the conference chamber shut, the two segments gliding down and sliding left to close like a misshapen jaw. He was beginning to feel trapped, especially since this Time Lady was freaking him out. There was something about her, like a lazy, cunning big cat idly toying with her prey.

The rest of the Time Lords were less frightening, but no more welcoming. At the far end of the table was a disconcerting decrepit old man, whose grey-white skin made him look like a fresh corpse. His monochrome robes hung loose around his gaunt, skeletal frame and contrasted with waxen wrinkles of his tired face framed by lank white hairs. Only his eyes showed any spark of life. Garundel had been on Logopolis long enough to recognize Narvin, an exiled Time Lord legend stated had accidentally started the Time War himself – and as punishment had been stripped of the power of regeneration.

Opposite Narvin was another notorious renegade, Matthias the Overconfident. The stories said he was one of the most cunning Lord Presidents Gallifrey had ever known, effortlessly manipulating his way to power only for his world to be laid low by the Dogma Virus, a Dalek-bio-weapon. Matthias had been forced to carry out ruthless and bloody purges, and had been so traumatized by the carnage he’d abandoned Gallifrey society altogether. He was a burly, tanned man who wore old-fashioned square-lensed spectacles and his closely-cropped fair hair was beginning to grey.

The final member of the group Garundel had seen before, but he didn’t know much about. He didn’t seem to be a Time Lord; indeed, he was barely humanoid. For a start, he had a beak rather than a nose than a mouth, his legs were short and his arms very long. He had dark feathers on his head and vestigial plumage on his forearms – he seemed to have clipped his own wings for one reason or another.

“Unsurprising,” clucked the bird-man in response to the Doctor’s traffic report. “At this moment, literally right now in this time zone, the N-Forms have gone into a frenzy. The local regions of vortex have been flooded with vitreous storms.”

“Yeah, there’s one hell of a big battle going on,” Garundel agreed, “and it’s tearing up the Helical Galaxy in all directions. Everyone who can is running for their lives, it’s like the fall of Star One out there times infinity and change!”

“It’ll sort itself out, or it won’t,” shrugged the Doctor. “Either way, we’ll have to pick up the pieces. Oh, where are my manners? We haven’t been introduced! Daphne and myself you already know. The feathered gentleman is Zero of the Prydonian Chapter, who went native in more ways than one. Up there is Young Narvin, to the left is Matthias the Overconfident and this is…”

“Lady Trey,” said the woman the Doctor had called Romana. Garundel doubted anyone else had the privilege to refer to her in that way and it would safer not to do otherwise. “And your charming companion must be…?”

“Name’s Garundel of Urodel – which I trust poses no difficulty to mammalian tongues?” he asked the assorted Time Lords. “Procurement specialist with a personal preference for weapons technology, but I am quite happy to diversify and give my time and effort free of charge to this noble cause y’all are so dedicated to.”

“He’s one of the best smugglers and most dishonest crooks I’ve met,” the Doctor translated cheerfully. “Not many people walk away from the Elder Gods or a Sontaran assault squad, and even fewer walk away with a sizable profit in their purses.”

“You neglect to mention some of his other clients,” rasped Narvin coldly.

Garundel glared at the wizened old man. “Can’t blame him for that, wrinkles, there are quite a lot of them,” he replied icily.

“Like the Daleks?” asked Zero, titling his head slightly.

“Strictly business, nothing personal,” Garundel replied. “And, you know, they played right by me. Not that I expect they’ll continue to do so.”

Matthias spoke up for the first time, looking at the Doctor with a terrible expression. “You would bring an ally of the Daleks to Enclave Logopolis? After what you lost the last time you showed mercy to such a traitor?”

The Doctor met Matthias’ glare measure for measure. “Garundel is no Monk, I can assure you of that. He’s always minimized any damage to non-combatants and he’s saved my life on many an occasion.”

“Yeah, the score sheet always left me in his debt,” the Urodelian sighed. “Eventually I got kinda sick of keeping count, and it’s easier just to stay on his side – especially since the war started. A war which, I don’t need to tell any of you holinesses at this table, is a whole lot of no-fun! So, what can I do for you?”

“A question I believe we all want answered,” Zero agreed.

Lady Trey took her own seat. “Logopolis wasn’t a big planet to start with. We’ve almost run out of space, and we can’t just start herding people to live inside TARDISes.”

“Certainly not,” agreed the Doctor. “Which is why I and Garundel have been out gathering vital supplies.”

“While more are gratefully received, they’re not an urgent priority,” Narvin retorted. “The fabricator machines can easily cope with the demand for a few centuries yet.”

“Narvin, you dear old stick-in-the-mud,” said Lady Trey with affection. “The resources are needed to create a new safe haven for the refugee races to live.”

“No where is safe,” grunted Matthias. “Not any more.”

“Safer, then,” Romana corrected patiently. “A place least likely to be part of the conflict – and we’re all agreed that place is in the Seriphia Galaxy.”

Garundel chuckled. “I get it. Safe… Seriphia. Well punned, Lady Trey. We are talking about the same Seriphia Galaxy the Daleks set on fire?”

“We are,” she replied unsmiling. “And I watched that annihilation occur.”

She glanced at the screen on the wall, sending a thought impulse that lit up the panel with an image of a dizzying vortex of ten tightly-weaved spiral arms burning with an unnatural, soulless amber hue. Romana narrated the vision calmly.

“Created over billions of years by a galactic collision in the late fourth millennium, then cleansed by an all-consuming inferno and reformed from superheated dust. Known as the Deathless Nebula by the Draconians, believed to be a diabolical gateway to the realm of evil. The fact the Daleks swarmed out of it didn’t dent that reputation. It has been called a cosmic disaster area, a monument to sentient endeavor, an affront to all creation and an open doorway to hell. I, however,” she concluded with a smile, “call it prime real estate ready and waiting for the middle classes.”

There was a long silence.

Garundel let out an unsettled laugh. “You’re kidding, right?” he asked hopefully. “You want to send your refugees into the heart of Dalek-dominated space, a galaxy notable for the fact that every living thing in there not with a sink plunger and egg whisk attached has died in terror and agony with nowhere to run?”

Daphne nodded. “Lady Trey, Roger the Alien here has got a point.”

The Urodelian frowned. “…what did you call me?” he asked.

Daphne ignored him. “Countless billions upon billions of people were wiped out there before the War even started – it’s about the biggest deathtrap there is.”

“Daphne,” Romana replied, “the Seriphia Galaxy is four times larger than the Milky Way and after the Mendes Catastrophe, only a hundred Daleks survived on a single planet. Those Daleks then spread out to try and rebuild their forces. Seriphia is all but completely abandoned and uninhabited, with perhaps only a few Daleks left manning the phones. They’re not even going to notice one of the fringe planets being colonized.”

“They might do,” wheezed Narvin. “They’ll certainly want to re-sterilize any life there.”

“Undoubtedly,” agreed the Doctor. “But they don’t have the resources to take on a single, unimportant planet when the Time Lords are routing them across reality.”

“What’s the name of this single, unimportant planet?” asked Zero.

“Zanjiku.” The Doctor glanced at the screen, telepathically zooming through the orange suns, purple nebulae and showers of meteor rocks to focus on a dead-looking reddish-brown world, punctuated by hideous cracks and crackers that glowed dully. The other planets in view looked just as hard, burnt and discolored. Only the sizes differed.

“A radioactive cinder on the remote fringes of Seriphia.” Matthias was unimpressed. “Temperature and background radiation well over limits of tolerance, seismological disturbances… every measurement you can think of is beyond the danger levels. The only life form that could survive there, let alone thrive, is a Dalek.”

“For the moment,” Lady Trey said with a smile. “We can restore it. Remove all the poisons from the atmosphere, regenerate the soil – make everything grow again.”

“Why do I doubt that?” asked Narvin.

“Coz you lack imagination, chum,” Daphne retorted impatiently.

“Grundle,” said the Doctor patiently. “Would you mind us taking peek at the cargo in the hold of your warp-ship?”

Garundel shrugged. The screen switched to show a metal tank filled with lazily-twitching slug-like creatures. They were fat and slimy, with vast mouths containing countless sharp, needle-like teeth and black oval eyes lined the backs of their slithering bodies.

“Marvelous,” said Lady Trey. It was impossible to tell if she was being sarcastic.

“Land-snails? Marvelous?” The Urodelian shook his head. “Whatever. As requested, they are all fully-grown, two metres long and believe me, those things stink so bad I’ve been sick continuously. I’m going to have to go on a feeding frenzy to maintain my svelte figure.” He shuddered. “Why would anyone want these things?” he cried.

“To restore Zanjiku,” the Doctor explained. “We take them there, slice them up and bury them at equidistant points around the planet, then wait three years.”

Garundel stared at him. “What is this? Some kind of ancient fertility rite?”

“In a way,” the Time Lord shrugged. “You see, as the gastropods have the secret to replenishing life a million times faster than average. As their flesh decomposes, a unique reaction takes place. The radiation will be sucked out of atmosphere, out of the ground, out of everything and stimulate growth in what is left behind. Totally barren ground will be completely regenerated, the nuclear fallout completely reversed. Give it five years, Zanjiku will be a paradise planet and that isn’t very long to wait when we have access to a TARDIS, now, is it?”

“Isn’t it thrilling?” agreed Lady Trey sweetly.

“Very thrilling,” agreed Garundel flatly. “And it’ll cost you.”

“We can pay you for your services rendered,” Zero noted, rolling his eyes.

“Oh, I never doubted that, my homies. Of course, money is pretty much worthless when no one is standing still long enough to hand it over and the timelines are constantly in flux so it’s impossible to work out what’s legal tender in any given time and place…”

“You want us to rename the planet after you?” asked Matthias incredulously.

Garundel shrugged. “I was thinking more of a statue, but, hey, I’ll take what I can get.”

“Fine. Now…” Lady Trey’s face broke into a wicked grin. “Let’s get this party started!”

***

Zanjiku was just as barren and desolate as Garundel had automatically assumed. As far as the ocular receptor could see, everything was grey and lumpy. The ground underfoot was a treacherous ever-shifting mix of loose pebbles and soft, powdery sand. The harsh red sun cast harsh shadows across the wind-carved wilderness of pits and gullies and shallow craters. The eastern half of the leaden purple sky was dominated by the globe of a neighboring planet, five times wider than most moons would appear to be.

Garundel’s warp-ship sat in a rugged, twisting gully that opened out onto clear sky. Daphne was striding out down the access ramp that lowered from the underbelly of the warp-ship to the stone plateau below. She glanced around the dead landscape for a moment and then turned to look up the ramp to where Garundel, the Doctor and the worker crew were all waiting.

Everyone was kitted out with isolation suits and respirators fabricated from one of the TARDISes in the Enclave, making it nearly-impossible to tell each other apart by anything other than species shape. Garundel found the suits awkward, claustrophobic and nauseating, but the latter could have been down to the cocktail of every anti-radiation drug he’d been able to get his claws on – he was never one to take stupid risks, after all. Though sensible precautions seemed a bit worthless considering he was right in the middle of Dalek territory during the greatest Time War so far…

“Well, according to Lady Trey, this is the best place to start microbial chemistry,” Daphne reported, looking back at the others. “What are we waiting for?”

“You heard the gynoid,” Garundel called to the crew, clapping his gloved claws. “Time to start slaughtering slugs, people!”

The workers obediently filed out of the warp-ship and began to excavate the ancient, wrinkled lava flows that clung to the ground like patterns of dry mud. Others moved back into the cargo bay to collect the first sacrificial land-slug. The Doctor, Daphne and Garundel had little to do but keep out of the way until something went wrong.

The first of the giant gastropods was carried out towards its grave and then slit open from head to tail with a laser scalpel. The creature died instantly, without any of the bloodcurdling shrieks Garundel knew they were capable of.

Thick black blood oozed from the gash like wet mud before the sliced slug was rolled with a vague ceremony into the hole in the ground. Then the workers began to shovel the dust and rocks back over the corpse. The stink was so strong it even penetrated their respirators and made some of them choke and gag.

“How long before those stinking nutrients set to work?” Garundel spluttered as the workers finished burying the gastropod.

“The radiation levels will be starting to drop now,” the Doctor replied, his thick voice giving away he wasn’t breathing through his nose, “but it’ll still be a while before the air’s breathable.”

Everyone was clambering back up the ramp into the warp-ship. Daphne was standing by the airlock, waving everyone back into the main body of the craft. “Right, everyone get strapped in,” she announced to the workers and crew. “We’re heading for the other side of the equator and we’re going to keep going until all those poor slugs are buried. Just making sure no one has unreasonable expectations for the rest of the week, all right?”

“A week,” Garundel groaned as the airlock cycled shut. “I don’t think I’ll be able to stand the stench. Come on, Doc, I’m doing this pro bono, give me a break!”

The Doctor pulled his cylindrical fallout helmet from his head and shook out his hair. “Well, if you’re desperate, you can come with me in the TARDIS,” he offered. “I’m going to skip ahead a bit to make sure this refurbishment works.”

“Will it be away from the smell?” the Urodelian croaked, removing his own helmet to show his increasingly lime-green complexion. “Please let it be away from the smell!”

“Only one way to find out, Grundle,” the Doctor teased and strode down the corridor towards the aft-section where the police box was parked.

Garundel remained where he was as the warp-ship lifted off the ground and sliced through the lifeless atmosphere to the next destination. “Well,” he mused to himself, “staying here is going to be a whole lot of no-fun. But going on missions with the Doctor invariably ends with me losing at least half my body mass very painfully. Mind you, being beheaded twice wasn’t as bad as that stink. And I never like to sit through the boring bits if it can be avoided. OK, I’m sold.”

He turned and scampered after the Time Lord as fast as his hind-legs could carry him.

“Woo-hoo! Oh, Doctor? Wait for me, you breathless romantic hunk!”

***

The time rotor was noisily pumping up and down in the central column as the Doctor circled the console, pressing buttons, flipping levers and spinning dials. His fallout suit had been stripped and thrown casually over one of the coral scaffolds, and he made a mental note to find another hat stand as soon as he could. Garundel was still struggling to squeeze his various limbs out of his own protective clothing. Finally he tugged his right hind-leg free and he fell back onto the circular console dais.

“Phew!” he sighed in relief. “Speaking of refurbishment, this place sure looks different!”

“The desktop theme’s been upgraded to the latest version,” the Doctor said by way of explanation, not looking up from the console monitor.

Garundel scuttled to join his companion. “So how come none of the other TARDISes in the Enclave look like this, then?”

“Simple enough. When Romana cut all ties to Gallifrey, that included the links to the TARDISes in case the Time Lords tried anything behind our collective backs. But this TARDIS,” the Doctor said with a grin and an affectionate pat to the central column, “was a already museum piece before I liberated her; it never occurs to anyone to try to hack a ship as old as her, or prevent me getting all the latest juicy upgrades.”

The Urodelian nodded admiringly. “Sneaky.”

“You never know when something can be useful, Grundle,” the Time Lord replied, moving around the console. “Never throw anything away.”

“Heck no!” agreed Garundel, shaking his huge head furiously. “There’s always some sucker out there willing to pay a fortune for it, whatever it is!”

The Doctor looked with a mixture of incredulity and exasperation at Garundel, but before he could reply the cyclical rhythm of the time rotor began to strain and slow, reaching a crescendo with heavy thud as though the ship had been dropped into a mound of flour.

“We’ve landed,” he announced, and the monitor display activated and, for a moment, showed nothing but a thin mist. “Looks quite good for a scorched planet with poisonous radioactive dust for an atmosphere, doesn’t it?”

“I’ll talk your word for it, Doc,” said Garundel distastefully. The landscape had changed, certainly, but it was still a bleak stretch of compacted, chalky grey soil and damp shale-covered rocks. A few scrappy weeds showed here and there through hard dry dust and in the distance was a fetid lake of murky grey water.

“Radiation levels down to zero, the atmosphere perfectly breathable, soil re-fertilized, water tables restored and purified, all in less than three years,” the Doctor read out happily. “Just needs some finishing touches to brighten the place up.”

“This oh-so-mysterious final ingredient you’ve been bragging about?”

“The very same,” the Doctor agreed, rummaging through his new coat’s pockets as he stepped off the dais and crossed to the outer doors. Turning the latch, he pulled the door back and stepped out onto the surface of Zanjiku.

Garundel timidly followed him out, idly wondering if they’d returned to the spot where Daphne had buried the first gastropod. The TARDIS stood slightly askew atop a small hillock amongst dunes of muddy silt.

Despite the warmth of the sun, a forlorn and biting wind swept across the valley, stirring the dust that coated the ground. The Doctor inhaled deeply. “As cool and fresh as a damp forest,” he said with a broad smile. “Soft and peaceful. Relaxing, isn’t it?”

Garundel looked around the dust-swept landscape. “Something’s not right here,” he said.

“Probably just the realization that we live in a strange and fragile universe and two vast galactic empires are at war in the skies above our heads,” the Doctor suggested, finally finding what he was looking for: a plastic bag full of silver, oval-shaped seeds.

“Above our heads,” Garundel agreed and looked up through the grim winter clouds overhead. “That other planet is smaller!” he accused.

“We’re three years into the future,” the Doctor replied. “Orbits shift in that time. Three years from now it’ll probably be back to normal. Or, to put it another year, one year into our own future, it’ll be as it was six years into our past. Come on.”

The Doctor set off the dust-swept terrain towards a rocky outcrop overlooking an undulating plateau of wet sand and stretching away to the distinctly curved horizon. “Looks like a good place to start,” he said, unsealing the plastic bag and taking out a seed which he proceeded to much thoughtfully.

For a moment Garundel stood listening to the lonely moan of the wind. “The word on the grapevine is this the last war of the Time Lord era – heck, of any era. I know you’re going to say the dinky Daleks have bitten off way more than they could ever chew, but they’re not exactly losing, are they?”

“The Daleks are doing what they’ve always done, taking the universe one galaxy, one system, one planet at a time,” the Doctor replied, plucking the well-chewed seed from his mouth so he could speak clearer. “The only difference is that the Time Lords aren’t sitting back and watching it all on a time scanner. They’re getting involved.”

“And I bet you’re bursting with pride now you’ve finally got them active,” Garundel observed as the Doctor lobbed the seed as far as he could, watching it slowly tumble in an arc down into the valley below.

“The Time Lords foreswore violence eons ago, but they’re just as sneaky and devious as ever. Once the Daleks are defeated, they’ll do what they always do – roll back history until it’s back in the proper pattern. Billions dead will be returned to life without even knowing what happened. Case in point…”

The Doctor pointed down at the spot where the seed landed. As they watched, a large grey stalk sprouted out of the seed, splitting into branches and then began to flower. Near the middle of each flower, dull red fruits swelled up into existence. Tiny blades of grass were starting to sprout up from the surrounding mud.

“Demeter Seeds, specially customized by the Lasky Institute on Mogaria,” the Doctor explained with a grin. “High-speed growth at the best of times, but in the right conditions you could create the eco system of a whole planet in one afternoon.” He offered the bag to Garundel as if sharing jelly babies. “Want a go?”

Garundel took one and chewed it, speaking out of the side of his guppy-like mouth. “Charmed. But I can’t help but notice that the Dalek are not defeated yet.”

“Their armadas have been drawn away from Seriphia, that’s all that matters.”

“Good,” said the Urodelian, spitting the chewed seedling over the edge of the valley. “Cause if so much as one Dalek spots this little commune then that’s it. They won’t try and talk, they won’t ask them to surrender, just exterminate everyone they can.”

The Doctor stared at him. “You’re acting like this could possibly be news to me.”

“Just making sure we’re on the same display read-out, is all,” Garundel replied, looking down at the two small trees growing in the valley as grass began to thicken into a green haze around their swelling trunks. “You’re trying to keep on the sidelines, fair enough, but don’t expect it’s going to be a stroll in the fungus fields.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” replied the Doctor, chewing another seed.

“Cause Time Lords or Daleks, they still outnumber and outgun you.”

“The Time Lords aren’t the enemy. They’re going to save the universe. Just because I refuse to join their ranks doesn’t mean I don’t believe they’re in the right.”

Garundel look his eyes off the rapidly-growing meadow and trees bordering the lake. “I dunno about that, a lot of people think they’re doing as much damage as the Daleks.”

The Doctor lobbed a chewed seed to the north and watched it take root in a heap of scree at the base of the valley. Within moments tiny vines were creeping out through the gaps in the stone like tiny fingers and large heart-shaped tropical leaves began to sprout.

“The Time Lords have been aloof observers for so long, Grundle,” he said at last. “No matter what action they took in whatever scenario, someone would dub it hypocritical or heavy handed. The Time Lords aren’t fighting this war to be popular, and I don’t expect them to. They fight the Daleks and I help the poor civilizations stuck in the middle.”

Garundel snapped a seed in two, spat on them, and tossed them back down the hillock towards the TARDIS. “They’re taking their sweet time in winning the war is all I was saying,” he said, watching as another red fruit tree began to sprout and mossy grass began to spread across the barren dirt path.

“Taking time is the prerogative of a Time Lord,” the Doctor agreed, deciding the valley had sufficient diversity and growth to look after itself now. “They’re probably still having endless council sessions and debates on how to commit temporal genocide with the minimum loss of face. It’s not my problem, Grundle. I doubt it ever will be.”

“Doctor!” a familiar voice shouted.

Both of them looked up to see a blue-coated figure moving further along the slope beyond where the TARDIS stood. By now, the landing site was turning to a damp, grassy hollow and small bushes and ferns were rising out of the ground. The newcomer cautiously made his way through the ever-lengthening grass towards him.

Garundel rolled his eyes. “Oh great. The wrinkled recruiter is back.”

The Doctor stuffed the bag of Demeter Seeds back into his pocket. “Zimmerman, what are you doing here?” he demanded impatiently. “If I change my mind – which, just for the record, I won’t – then I can join the glorious battalions of the temporal rangers on my own. I don’t need your help…”

“No,” the ex-Time Agent replied wearily. “But I need yours!”

“Zimmerman…”

“Doctor, if you want to leave your entire species in the lurch, that’s your own affair. I did what the Time Lords asked of me, but that’s not enough for them.”

“I know the feeling,” the Doctor sighed with genuine sympathy.

Zimmerman raised his left forearm, showing off the leather wrist-strap. “I can’t use my vortex manipulator to return home. It’s taken all I’ve got just to follow the trail of your TARDIS here.” He glowered at the device. “I think the Time Lords are behind this, not letting me leave without you in tow…”

“My hearts bleed for you, but if you think that’s going to convince me…”

“I don’t want to convince you!” Zimmerman snapped, nostrils flaring with anger. “I just want you to fix the manipulator so I can get out of here.” He calmed down slightly. “The sooner you undo whatever it is the Time Lords have done, the sooner you can continue planting shrubberies without me to cramp your so-called style.”

“You got to admit,” said Garundel, “that’s one heck of a convincing argument.”

The Doctor looked to the Urodelian, then back to the ex-Time Agent. “I agree,” he said emotionlessly, then sighed. “All right, Zimmerman, hand it over…”

Zimmerman undid the fastener and peeled the leather strap from his wrist. His arm felt thin and weak without its reassuring warm weight, but nonetheless he handed it over to the Doctor who took the device and started to fiddle with it, gently biting his tongue as he concentrated on the deceptively-simple-looking layout.

Garundel sighed and gazed unhappily around them as plant life transformed the barren wasteland into a forest glade. “You and me, Zimmerman, pioneers of free trading. I used to have a real future ahead of me. I beat eighty-two siblings to make the most credits with the fewest kills. I got the keys to the mothership. Look at us now. Dancing to the pro bono tune like we’re partial to perilous poverty. Every civilized religious dogma agrees the size of your bank balance determines your rank in the afterlife! I don’t know about you, old man, but I lay awake at nights worrying about my spiritual future!”

“This humanitarian aide is nothing but bad karma to the purse, I agree,” Zimmerman smirked. “Were we too good for the universe?” he asked with over-exaggerated theatrically. “Or the universe too good for us?”

“The latter, I assure you,” said the Doctor coldly, not looking up from the wrist-strap.

“If you want to interfere in other people’s ethics, Doctor, there is a Time War on just waiting for you to get stuck in!” Zimmerman replied scornfully. “The great Doctor. The might-have-been Lord President. The would-be explorer, the not-quite rebel. Never managed to be anything in particular, did you?”

The Doctor, his expression as enigmatic as a sphinx, threw the wrist-strap back to Zimmerman. “There’s nothing wrong with your vortex manipulator. At least, not with the manipulator. The problem’s with the vortex.” He strode through the long grass back towards the TARDIS. “Massive temporal storms, a veritable chronon hurricane is blowing out there. The safety overrides have cut in – it’s too risky to travel, even by the decadent hedonism of your time!”

“Brilliant,” said Zimmerman, strapping the manipulator back onto his wrist as he followed the Doctor. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to give me a lift to Drornid?”

“No, not really,” the Doctor retorted as he strode through the police box doors. “The temporal storm fronts are worryingly intense. Despite the upgraded installations, I’m not certain my TARDIS could make it through without a secondary navigational system to pick up the slack. An extra flight computer to balance things out…”

“Can we get back to Logopolis at least?” as Garundal, scuttling after them.

The Doctor reached the console and started adjusting controls. “Oh, we should be able to – but the sooner we head back the better. The mass exodus might have to wait until vortex weather permits. I’ll go and contact Romana.” He crossed to the laptop screen which blinked, flickered and suddenly lit up with Lady Trey’s high-cheekboned face. “Ah, Romana, there you are, I was just about to call you...”

“What’s gone wrong with the terraforming, Doctor?” asked Lady Trey, frowning.

“Wrong? Nothing’s wrong,” he replied, nonplussed. “Admittedly, I’ve not finished seeding the whole planet but the target area is a veritable Garden of Eden.”

“Then something else is affecting it,” Lady Trey replied. “Head back to the present. Daphne and the rest of us are waiting. And be quick, the vortex is in a terrible state!”

“Yes, actually, that’s what I wanted to...” The Doctor trailed off as the screen blanked out again. “Why would she think something’s gone wrong?” he wondered and crossed back to the open doors to look out of the TARDIS.

The dusty air now smelt sharp and clean. The first tree planted was now so tall it dominated the countryside of shrub-land, its top branches almost level with the top of the hillside. Yellow flowers the size of small cabbages were beginning to bloom out of the grass, and there was the makings of a shady wood along the edges of the lake whose waters were clearing enough to sparkle in the sunshine.

“What happens in the next two years to undo this?” he wondered to himself.

“Why don’t we skip to the end and find out, buddy?” suggested Garundel, closing the door and thumbing down the brass locking tab. “Coz the sooner we do, the sooner we can get back to the closest thing the universe still has to somewhere to run…”

The Doctor was already circling the console, working the various switches and panels. Suddenly he grabbed a central lever on one of the frames and shifted it, causing the time rotor to shunt up and down twice with the usual wheezing, groaning protests from the engines. As the TARDIS made its landing thump, the Time Lord ran back from the dais to the outer doors, turned the latch and hurried outside without a word.

For want of something else to do, Garundel and Zimmerman followed him out.

The forest glade was now well into the process of becoming a dense jungle. The wild, thick grass hugged the bases of trees well over two hundred metres tall. The sunlight was almost blotted out by a canopy of green vines stretching from trunk to trunk and between the massive branches. Creepers thicker than a man’s wrist wound themselves around masses of trees and foliage, leaving a tiny clearing barely twelve paces wide for the Doctor’s TARDIS to stand in.

Daphne, Lady Trey and a handful of workers were heading through the foliage towards them. The Doctor noticed that the blades of grass flattened beneath their feet did not rise when they shifted their weight, and seemed rather yellowed.

“Doctor,” Lady Trey called, then frowned at Zimmerman. “Oh, hello, Nikolaus. I didn’t know you were tagging along for the ride. I don’t suppose you’d know if anything went wrong with the refurbishment?”

“I’m afraid not,” he replied with his most charming smile.

“Romana, why are you here?” asked the Doctor. “I thought you were staying back on Logopolis to organize the exodus…”

“Oh, I was,” she agreed. “But the vortex is almost completely impassable. I decided to come here in person and set up a transmat terminus, so all the refugees can come directly to Zanjiku instead of risking traversing the time streams.”

“Trouble is,” Daphne added, “when I brought the workers up to the present to see the end result, the whole place started to come apart at the seams.”

Garundel glanced around the clearing. “Doesn’t look too bad to me,” he noted.

Lady Trey tilted her head quizzically. “Try opening your eyes then,” she suggested.

Now she mentioned it, the Doctor had noticed a strange sense of decay in the air, like the atmosphere wasn’t as moist and fetid like it should have been. Then it became obvious; the endless plants seemed to be succumbing to some kind of invisible autumn. The leaves were curling, turning brown or grey and leaving the shrubs and bushes threadbare and skeletal. The colours were all muted and drained, the scents thick with rotting vegetation. The crowding foliage was losing its lushness in front of their eyes, thinning away in patches. “These forests cover more than forty-four per cent of the planetary surface,” explained Lady Trey. “But now it’s all wilting and dying. All of it. Everywhere.”

Daphne nodded at the petals and leaves starting to fall to the ground. “It’s like the whole of Zanjiku’s been covered in super-duper weed-killer,” she observed.

“But it hasn’t?” the Doctor asked, crouched over some sapling that had cracked off at the base. They crumbled to powder in his hands.

“No chemicals, no radiation, no recognized defoliation technique whatsoever,” Daphne replied, counting them off on her fingertips. “This process or whatever it is, kicked off six hours ago and it’s snowballing faster and faster all the time. A couple of hours and we’ll be back to square one. A dead stone hanging in space.”

“Like a Nimon’s sucking the life out of everything,” Lady Trey agreed.

The whole clearing was grey and brown now, like burnt paper. Zimmerman flinched slightly as an overhanging branch broke away from its trunk and crashed to the ground with a brittle crackling. The canopy of vines had shriveled away to reveal the sky, and Garundel’s eyes widened in surprise. “Where’s the planet gone?” he asked.

The Doctor straightened up and gazed up through the dying trees. “I see what you’re mean. The next world along has vanished. The orbits of this system aren’t that fast…”

“Maybe whatever is effecting the vegetation here also affected that planet,” Zimmerman suggested thoughtfully. “Something eating planets one by one...”

“You know,” the Urodelian said nervously, “on second thoughts, maybe naming this Garundel’s World would be a mistake. Does sort of hint to the Daleks at the part I played in proceedings, doesn’t it?”

“Ah, the price of fame,” the Doctor teased.

One of the workers swayed and stumbled. Daphne’s fine-tuned responses allowed her to dart through the rotting shrubs to catch the red-skinned alien before he collapsed. “Eh, careful sweetheart,” she said, steadying him. “What’s wrong?”

“Me, I…” he said sluggishly. “I am all right. Just… a bit dizzy.”

“Some kind of entropy field,” Lady Trey announced. “It’s grinding Zanjiku down to dust and we’ll be next. Daphne, prepare the warp-ship for immediate take-off and get back to Enclave Logopolis at top speed.”

The Doctor reached out and tapped her on her tweed-clad shoulder. “Romana, we’ve work too hard on this to give up now,” he told her firmly.

“Zanjiku’s a lost cause, Doctor,” she sighed. “Within the hour it will be uninhabitable, perhaps even completely disintegrate. This is Dalek territory, remember?” She shook her head sadly. “We’ve all been fools to think they’d allow anyone to claim it back.”

“You think this is, what? Some kind of Dalek failsafe?” asked Daphne.

“Or a Time Lord one to prevent the Daleks re-colonizing. All I know is that our TARDISes are the only things stopping us crumbling away and the longer we stay here the higher the chance their protection will fail. Come on.”

The Doctor didn’t move. “Romana, this project used up almost all the resources we had. We might never be able to try setting up another refugee planet, these people might never get another chance. We have to try and find out what’s happening and reverse it!”

“We’re at the end of the line, Doctor,” she replied softly and waved a finger towards the state of the clearing behind the TARDIS. The blackening trees were now old and dying, the bleached grass withering away to leave pale yellow dirt beneath. “Even if you can shut the field down, the damage is too deep to heal.”

“I won’t believe that.”

“We’re leaving, Doctor. And that’s an order.”

“An order which I am not going to obey.”

Lady Trey smiled affectionately. “Shame on you. Daphne,” she called. “The Doctor’s refusing to accept reality again and he needs someone to look after him.”

“I don’t even know why you bother to ask out loud, Lady Trey,” the gynoid sighed and crossed over to them. She poked a finger at the Doctor. “But I’m in charge, all right? When I say we get out, we get out. My word is bleeding law, savvy?”

The Doctor flashed a toothy, knowing grin at her.

She harrumphed and rolled her eyes. “All right. I guess I would really like it, OK, if burying all that putrefying flesh wasn’t for nothing…”

The both turned and ran through the doors and into the TARDIS. Lady Trey glanced at Garundel and Zimmerman and arched one of her eyebrows. The Urodelian swallowed and scuttled after the others. “You’re creeping me out, Lady Trey, I want you to be aware of this. I’ll take my chance with the Doc,” he said, heading inside.

“He’s right,” said Zimmerman thoughtfully. “You really are quite creepy.”

With a last glance at the shriveling, crumbling plants around them, the ex-Time Agent turned on his heel and entered the police box TARDIS. The others were already standing atop the circular dais as the Doctor tapped at the keypad, rapidly setting the coordinates.

“So I take it we’re following the money?” Daphne asked.

“Ooh, I like this turn of events,” said Garundel happily, clapping his webbed claws.

“I mean,” the gynoid corrected, “we’re seeing where all the energy’s going to.”

“Couldn’t put it better myself,” the Doctor murmured, entering a sequence of numbers, letters and symbols into the keypad. Immediately the screen brightened with a new set of circular clockwork images in bolt red. “Somewhere at the equator… there’s some kind of machinery built under the planetary crust, just above the mantle.”

“Pity you didn’t detect it earlier,” Zimmerman sniffed.

“Something like this is only detectable when active,” the Time Lord replied, not bothering to rise to the insult. Nonetheless, they all noticed how tightly his hands gripped the coral frame of the console after he set the coordinates.

“You OK?” asked Daphne.

“Oh, I’m fantastic, Daphne,” he replied darkly. “Because this is where we prove once and for all there are some things the Daleks can’t take away from us, no matter what!”

***

The chamber was vast and circular, a hemispherical dome encompassed by an umbrella-like frame of five curving arches composed of a glowing golden hexagonal framework. The honeycomb gave the vague impression of a wasps’ nest, as if the complex was part of some gigantic hive of insects. From the apex of the arches hung an elegant spherical structure of crystalline filaments which pulsed in time with a throbbing electronic heartbeat. Circular units and components glowed electric blue to contrast with the burnished bronze décor but the chamber was far too dim for human eyes, as it had never been designed with their eyesight in mind.

Suddenly the heartbeat was joined by a scratching, scraping noise of a time/space machine clawing itself out of thin air. A bright flashing blue light illuminated one of the outermost parts of the chamber, until a tall blue police box was reflected in dull bronze walls around it. A few seconds after the ancient engines ceased grinding, the police box doors rattled, unlocked and opened.

It was oppressively hot, and the ozone-filled air was full of static electricity that made the Doctor’s skin feel decidedly itchy as he left the TARDIS. He crossed to the drum-like control node in the middle of the chamber, vaguely recalling some high-tech wishing well. As he examined the transparent bubble over the node, he was aware of the others filing out through the police box doors. “Maybe you three should go back into the TARDIS,” he mused, peering through the dome at what lay within.

“Not a hope, mate,” said Daphne firmly. “Any idea what this place is for?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Well, I don’t know about you but I just love being left in suspense,” Garundel told the others sarcastically, folding his spindly grey arms.

“As I thought,” the Doctor said in a bleak, defeated voice. “A Minatorius energy siphon – something so sickeningly dangerous I would have thought even Daleks wouldn’t be stupid enough to use!”

“A minotaur what?” asked Daphne, bewildered.

The Doctor gestured to the crystalline machine above them. “It’s what’s killing everything on Zanjiku. It drains the energy that binds physical matter together. Without it, it simply disintegrates into nothing. This whole planet is being broken down into raw energy and fashioned into something new.”

“Sounds like the sort of thing the Daleks would use,” Garundel agreed.

“It’s incredibly unstable,” the Doctor said, moving around the chamber to get a good look at every part of the device. “One of these things consumed an entire super-galaxy in less than thirty years and that was set on minimum. The Fledgling Empires banned them for public safety. If just this single station malfunctioned, Seriphia would just shimmer and vanish for good.”

“Well, looking on the possible bright side here, if the Daleks are using this sort of technology, they must be desperate,” Daphne pointed out.

Zimmerman, however, shrugged and added, “Or they’re so confident of victory the loss of this whole galaxy doesn’t matter.”

“There’s no way of telling,” the Doctor agreed bitterly. “There must be miniature siphons on every planet in Seriphia, that’s why the neighbors have been disappearing – every last atom was used up.”

“Used up for what?” Daphne asked. “It’s not like they’re going to be recharging their iPads, are they? What do they need all that energy for?”

Garundel nodded to a tubular lozenge-shaped cubicle built into the furthermost part of the chamber. It was hard to tell if the translucent material was frosted over or simply filled with some kind of opaque substance. “If this gizmo grinds up matter to create stuff, it must be churning out the finished product on a production line somewhere,” he mused. “And I dunno about you, but this sure looks like the template generator,” he said, tapping the cubicle. “Or possible some combat latrine, it could go either way.”

The Doctor and the others crossed to join him. “Yes, the pattern laid out for the new structure to be built upon,” he observed. He took out his sonic screwdriver, switched it on and ran it in an anticlockwise motion across the cubicle.

The cubicle lit up from within, showing it to be filled with something too thick to be fog but far too thin to be liquid. It was a swirl of matter that had a rough outline of a squat, conical shape that was undeniably brutal even though it was barely formed. With a loud grumble the shield slid back to reveal the shape was a translucent jelly-like object, with some patches smooth but others – like the grille section surrounded by slats beneath the domed head, or the spherical lens attachment at the end of the eyestalk – were detailed and intricate. The suction cup seemed half-grown but the gun-stick was complete.

All four of them instinctively took a step back and the machinery around them hummed ominously, almost as thought it too was afraid of what had been revealed.

“They’re burning up planets to create new Daleks?” exclaimed Daphne, shocked.

The Doctor was just as taken aback. “They can’t be…” he spluttered, shaking his head. “I mean, this machinery is so imprecise, to create a fully-working Dalek complete with unit would loose incalculable waste energy!”

“You mean, they use up a whole planet and only get a couple of Daleks out of it?” asked Garundel, surreptitiously moving so the other three were between him and the incomplete creature in the template generator.

“Pretty much, Grundle,” agreed the Doctor dazedly. “I doubt this entire star system could provide enough Daleks to crew a single battle cruiser. Daphne’s right, if they’re this desperate for front-line troops then the Empire has all but fallen!” he concluded with a slightly fevered grin on his face and a new fire in his eyes.

“Either way, we need to shut this thing off,” Daphne reminded him firmly. “Now!”

“Quite right,” said the Doctor and crossed to the control node and studied the cat’s cradle of wires and fibres forming the web beneath the glass bubble. A few zaps from the screwdriver caused the bubble shield to revolve back, exposing the innards. It looked even more intricate and complicated up close.

“You do know what you’re doing don’t you?” checked Zimmerman.

The Doctor flashed him a grim and Zimmerman took his cue to seek cover.

“When in doubt,” proclaimed the Time Lord, “everything out!”

The Doctor calmly shoved the screwdriver into the tangled wires and circuits as far as possible and switched on. There was loud crackle, a flash and acrid blue smoke began to coil out of the depths of the drum. He withdrew his hand from the node and shoved the screwdriver in his pocket while he blew on his singed fingertips.

“Did it work?” asked Daphne.

Already the deep electronic heartbeat whirred down to silence and the dim lights diminished further. The machinery around them whined and shut down. “Let me guess,” said Garundel dryly. “You reversed the polarity and fused everything.”

“But did we do it in time?” wondered the Doctor, crossing to one of the trapezoidal surveillance pillars lined with circular monitor screens scanning the surface. He flipped through the frequencies. “Just how bad did things get up there?”

If the Doctor had been expecting to see a beautiful verdant landscape he was to be disappointed. The lush green meadows were sun-baked plains of barren, dusty dirt; the bushes and flowers were reduced to parched scrubland. Zanjiku was only slightly-less bleak, arid and desolate than when they’d first arrived.

“I think we left it a little late,” mused Garundel glumly.

“It’s not too bad,” the Doctor said confidently. “The radioactive damage has been purged, there’s still some plant life surviving. I’ve still got plenty of Demeter Seeds…”

“Except the molecular structure of everything on this planet has been weakened,” Zimmerman said, surreptitiously emerging from his hiding spot. “The whole surface could crumble under the weight of new vegetation.”

“It may not be that fragile,” the Doctor pointed out.

“Maybe,” said Daphne, “but we can’t risk moving refugees here.”

The Doctor was almost pleading. “But…”

The gynoid didn’t let him finish. “Not without a proper survey. I’m in charge, remember? Now, come on, let’s get back to Lady Trey on Logopolis and work out what to do next.”

“I’m with you, sweetheart,” said Garundel. “Today is not a day I’ll be bragging about to my surviving relatives – or even people I actually like!”

“I won’t give up on this, Daphne,” said the Time Lord firmly.

“You might have to, though,” Zimmerman pointed out smugly. “As I always say – if there’s no way of getting round something, you’ve just got to plough straight through it.”

Having delivered that pearl of wisdom, Zimmerman suddenly screamed as his body was enveloped in unearthly burning light that made his skeleton glow green through his flesh and clothes. The harsh burst of energy crackled and spat before fading out, leaving Zimmerman to topple the floor, his body contorted with agony.

Behind him stood the Dalek, having emerged from the cubicle. Its casing was a pale, sickly yellow colour instead of the normal dark bronze, and there was no glint on its dull armor. It looked unfinished and insubstantial, lacking the detail and heaviness of a normal drone. The eyestalk was a watery, ill-looking shade of blue while its dome lights flickered randomly. The mechanisms within the Dalek whined sickly without any of the normal cool precision, its movements jerky and stiff.

Nonetheless the gun-stick was still in perfect working order and it emitted a focused beam of merciless blue-tinged radiation at the others. The Doctor and Daphne dived behind a pillar as a sizzling bolt exploded against it an inferno of writhing blue light, turned a hideous shade of green by its bronzed surroundings.

“EXTERMINATE! EXTERMINATE!” it croaked in a gargling electronic rasp, pleasure and joy audible in the labored syllables. “INTRUDERS WILL BE EXTERMINATED!”

The Doctor and Daphne were crouched motionless in the cramped space between one of the freestanding instrument banks and the hot metal walls. Their hiding places were obvious and it wouldn’t take their attacker along to hunt them down. Worse, it was between them and the TARDIS – there was nowhere to go.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid Doctor,” he muttered breathlessly. “The failsafe’s created a Dalek to defend the machinery before I shut them down.”

“An embryo Dalek,” Daphne exclaimed, “not even full-formed!”

“Still death on anti-gravs, though,” hissed Garundel, cowering behind a console nearby.

“It’s weak,” Daphne insisted. “I can try attacking…”

“You’ll do no such thing,” the Doctor growled. “Even though the casing is incomplete, its shell will still be full of virus transmitters that could latch onto you or even worse into the TARDIS – amongst other booby-traps…”

“Well, how’s about this for a crazy idea? Someone do something that will get us out of this mess!” hissed Garundel hysterically, all too aware of the Dalek inching forward until it was looming over the console before him.

“Shut it, you wet blanket,” Daphne snapped, and reached into her satchel to bring out a Gallifreyan impulse staser, a hand pistol seemingly built out of transparent crystal and handing to the Doctor. “If that shell isn’t fully formed, then that nerve junction is vulnerable, then, ain’t it?”

At that moment, the Dalek opened fire on the console, which exploded outwards in a fireworks display of metal debris and wiring. In order to escape the molten shrapnel, Garundel was forced to leap out of danger and he ended up cowering in front of the studded base of the Dalek itself. It stared blindly down at him for a moment.

Then it screamed “EXTERMINATE!” and took aim.

“No, wait! We’ve got a history as business partners!” Garundel babbled, eyes wide with terror. “Remember Gardundel Galactic’s Secret Arms Option? You can’t kill me! Your boss wouldn’t want that! I’m a top-level venture procurement speciali—”

“EXTERMINATE!” screamed the Dalek again and fired. The beam of light sliced into the Urodelian like a lance, consuming him in a cruel harsh blue glow so bright it imprinted a negative image across the Doctor’s retina. The grey alien crumpled lifelessly to the floor as his last scream rattled away in his throat.

The Doctor peered around one of the scanner banks. “Don’t forget me, Dalek!”

“YOU ARE THE DOCTOR!” it exclaimed. With an overtaxed metallic whine, the Dalek wobbled forward, strafing the chamber with more searing beams as it twisted and turned angrily on the spot. It looked as though it was so gripped with rage it was unsure of what to do next. “YOU ARE THE DOCTOR!”

“Sorry, I don’t do autographs these days – they always seem to end up on eBay!” he replied casually, then raised the impulse staser and fired. There was a fierce, distinctive crackle of an energy blast and a jagged X-shape of light impaled the Dalek in its plated mid-section, just above and to the left of the socket of his manipulator arm.

That tiny spot was the Dalek weak-point, the unavoidable flaw in their basic design; which was why that part of their armor was triple-reinforced against such danger. A fully-constructed Dalek unit would be unlikely to have been scratched. This Dalek was to be the exception that proved the rule. It let out a strangled howl and its three appendages spasmed violently then went limp. Had it not continued its bloodcurdling screams, it could easily have been mistaken for dead.

The Doctor glanced across at Daphne, who was crouched over Zimmerman’s body and taking out medical supplies from her satchel. In one single moment she fitted a neural-relief collar around his throat and activated it. The gynoid was working desperately to keep him alive. Obviously, Zimmerman’s wrist-strap force field had activated and repelled some of the deadly radiation, just enough for him to survive the initial blast.

“How is he?” the Doctor asked, wincing at the banality of the question.

“He’s alive, but not by much,” Daphne replied, not looking up from her work. “Not sure he’s got the will for it – he’s been clinically dead once already. I’ve given him some sustainer shots to restructure the damaged tissue and prevent cellular decay. It’ll keep him alive for the moment, but it isn’t easy…”

“Do what you can and get him into the TARDIS,” he ordered.

Carefully scooping Zimmerman’s body into her arms with her unnatural strength, Daphne carried him over to the police box and stepped inside while the Doctor crossed to the crippled Dalek. Holding his sonic screwdriver just below the angled tip, he ran it along the hinge beneath the domed top. The unfinished armor rippled like rubber under his fingertips as he carefully pulled the top section of the Dalek up and back, to reveal a tangle of slimy electronic parts and wires connected to a greasy green squid like creature with a single bloodshot eye. The mutant looked as pale and ghostly as the casing around it. It peered helplessly up at the Time Lord and finally stopped moaning.

“YOU CANNOT KILL ME, DOCTOR…” it rasped. “YOU WILL NOT DO IT…”

“No, not before you’ve told me what I want to know,” he agreed, gripping the steel tube of the sonic screwdriver and plunged it into the casing, touching the spaghetti-like mass of connections around the Dalek mutant.

“YOU ARE THE COWARD!” the Dalek howled. “I WILL TELL YOU NOTHING!”

The Doctor activated the screwdriver, and in response the Dalek casing began to increase the stimulation to the mutant’s neurons. Eventually it would reach the point the Dalek’s brain would liquefy, but before that it would lose all mental control and let slip anything that happened to cross its disintegrating mind.

“Confessions are good for the soul,” he said aloud over the whir of the screwdriver. “Why don’t you tell me how badly the War’s going and we can commiserate the imminent demise of your nightmare of a species?”

The Dalek all but laughed in his face. “THE DALEKS WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED! WE ARE PURE! NOTHING CAN STOP US!”

“You’re destroying your base of operation to create a handful of new Daleks,” the Doctor pointed out reasonably. “Why are you so desperate for reinforcements?”

“THE FUTURE BELONGS TO THE DALEKS! GALLIFREY WILL FALL TO THE DALEKS! THE TIME LORDS WILL BE DEFEATED! ALL INFERIORS WILL BE ERADICATED FROM THE UNIVERSE!”

“You’ve lost the Time War,” said the Doctor brutally. “You’ve bitten off more than you can chew and all you can hope for is one last bloodbath before extinction!”

“THE DALEKS WILL ALWAYS SURVIVE!”

“Well,” replied the Doctor with a chuckle, “you say that…”

“WE ARE THE MASTERS OF THE CRUCIFORM!” screamed the Dalek.

The Doctor froze, letting the sonic screwdriver shut off. “Don’t lie to me, Dalek,” he ordered in a cold voice that didn’t hide the shock in his voice.

The Dalek writhed and twisted its tentacles, shaking and twitching from the neural stimulation. “I DO NOT LIE!” it shrieked, its single eye rolling up into its squid-like body. “THE EMPEROR HAS TAKEN CONTROL OF THE CRUCIFORM! ONE OF THE TIME LORDS IS A TRAITOR – NO DALEK WOULD EVER BETRAY ITS OWN SPECIES!” It began to rant in a sing-song voice. “THAT IS WHY WE ARE SUPERIOR AND THAT IS WHY WE HAVE WON THE TIME WAR!”

“That will never happen!” the Doctor roared.

“IT HAS ALREADY HAPPENED! THE TIME LORDS HAVE NO POWER OVER THE UNIVERSE ANY LONGER! YOU HAVE LOST, COWARD!” cackled the insane mutant. “NOTHING CAN WITHSTAND THE DALEKS NOW – SOON ALL NON-DALEK LIFE WILL NEVER HAVE EXISTED!”

“But it hasn’t happened yet – and you still need reinforcements!”

“THEY ARE REQUIRED TO HOLD BACK TIME LORD FORCES UNTIL WE HAVE FULL CONTROL OF ALL CRUCIFORM SYSTEMS!”

“So you haven’t got the hang on the controls,” the Doctor deduced, composing himself somewhat. “And you never will.”

“IT IS ONLY A MATTER OF TIME!” giggled the mutant.

“Oh, very witty,” said the Doctor with a sneer. “Still, thank you for telling me what I wanted to know. Bye-bye,” he said and switched on the sonic screwdriver again. He did not look away as the mutant thrashed violently for a moment and then went limp.

A weak, painful croak came from behind him. “Heh… never thought I’d live… to see you… kill something in cold blood…”

The Doctor turned from the Dalek to see Garundel was curled up in a corner. His eyes were bloodshot and his rich tangerine blood was trickling from the corner of his mouth and gills. Broken capillaries were visible through his pale flesh.

“As long as my soul can afford the cost of what I’ve done in order to survive,” he said, crouching down beside the Urodelian and aimed his sonic screwdriver at the grey-skinned alien. “No open wounds, no danger of infection at least,” he reported. “You didn’t lose any blood either.”

“I was too busy…” Garundel coughed painfully. “…being exterminated.”

The Doctor smiled sadly. “I told you to stay in the TARDIS.”

“You also told me… money isn’t everything… shows how little you know…”

“Well, that’s materialism for you. It ends up costing you an arm and a leg.”

“Funny,” he croaked in wheezing amusement. “See you in the next life, Doc...”

Garundel’s eyes slid smoothly shut. The Doctor could still sense the ragged flutter of Garundel’s heart in his chest, but the Urodelian had fallen into a coma which might hold him forever – always assuming he didn’t simply die.

With a sigh, the Doctor scooped the small alien up into the crook of his arm and with a final, weary look around the ruined energy siphon, hurried into the TARDIS. Inside he found Daphne was kneeling on the console dais, running more checks over the wax-white Zimmerman and generally bullying him into survival.

“Is he stabilized yet?” he asked, laying Garundel down near the doors.

The gynoid brushed away the film of perspiration forming on Zimmerman’s forehead. “Life signs are just about acceptable. How’s Toad of Toad Hall over there?”

“Not good,” the Doctor replied. “Urodelians have amazing regenerative powers, but normally it’s just the odd limb. All his internal organs are a mess, his nervous system is going to need a bit of fiddly little work to repair. He might survive.”

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Daphne retorted, moving around to begin examining Garundel. “Get us back to Logopolis now!”

The Doctor nodded and straightened up, turning the levers and dials to powered up the TARDIS and take flight, but almost the they dematerialized, the console room began to lurch and buckle unsteadily. The grinding of the engines grew louder and more strained. The Doctor struggled to stabilize the flight

“Bleeding hell, Doctor!” Daphne roared. “Keep this pigging thing level – it’s hard enough keeping them breathing without you mixing up whatever’s left of their insides!”

“Backseat drivers,” the Doctor muttered to himself, circling the console and dialing up the temporal recede setting in an effort to make the flight less bumpy but not even that worked. He turned his attention to try and land the TARDIS as soon as possible, but that seemed to make the lurches more violent, the journey more erratic and unstable.

Finally the time rotor came to a halt and their arrival was declared with an echoing thud.

“Oh flipping heck,” Daphe gasped, adjusting the collar around Zimmerman’s throat. “I think we’ve gone and killed him – his heart’s given out!” She frantically began to pummel his chest to massage life back into him. “Come on, you creep,” she muttered feverishly. “I’ll settle for ten beats a minute… that’s it… come on…”

***

It’s a beautiful world we live in,
A sweet, romantic place
Beautiful people everywhere
The way they show they care…


The Doctor stood brooding over the TARDIS console, a creature in its natural environment. It struck him for the first time that he preferred the shadows and candles of the old control room, and how easy it was relax and forget your problems – the warning signs about Charley or C’rizz, the things left unsaid with Lucie, the brutal truth that his time with Molly and Liv had been borrowed and finite. The stark pale grey light of the new desktop theme didn’t let his mind wander any more.

He’d rejected the notion of being a man with a plan, preferring aimless and ambling spontaneity but that attitude had cost him dearly, almost as much as the Daleks had. He had to be decisive and pro-active nowadays. Murdering the Dalek drone had been a necessity, a mercy killing of a creature in torment who had almost killed the people whose safety he had been responsible for. It didn’t make him feel any better, and it certainly hadn’t improved the situation. Why was it always the nasty things that needed to be done? No one ever argued the ends justified the means when they baked a cake…

It’s a wonderful time to be here
It’s nice to be alive
Wonderful people everywhere
The way they comb their hair…


Once the TARDIS had finally landed in the Logopoliton marketplace, a team of medics had been summoned to whisk away Garundel and Zimmerman and Daphne had rushed off with them, not sparing the Doctor a second glance. He couldn’t complain; he had programmed her to be like that in the first place. And so he’d been left in the TARDIS to brood and also consciously sing something slightly more cheerful than his usual Billie Holiday albums, which would hardly improve his temper.

Makes me want to say
It’s a beautiful world…
It’s a wonderful place…
For you, for you, for you…


He broke off as the outer door swung inwards and a familiar beret-clad head poked around the door frame. “Knock knock,” said Lady Trey, conspicuously failing to do either. Her pale elfin face was created with concern. “Are you OK?”

The Doctor shrugged.

The Time Lady entered the TARDIS and joined him at the controls. “Although this project has failed totally in every important respect, you do know you and your grossly confused idealism still have my full support, don’t you?”

The Doctor chuckled weakly. “I never considered otherwise.”

Lady Trey nodded. A thought occurred to her. “Hug?” she suggested.

“Not at the moment, thanks.” The Doctor sighed. “How’s Zimmerman?”

“Still alive – barely,” she reported with the same detachment that so unsettled those who did not know the ex-President that well. “Most of his internal organs need cellular reconstruction and of course his nervous system was almost completely burnt out.”

“He was lucky,” the Doctor observed.

“It was Daphne’s quick thinking and sheer determination he’s still breathing at all,” Lady Trey pointed out. “As for Garundel, he’s in his regeneration pod but he’s still showing no sign of coming out of the coma.”

“And so neither are any further use to us or Enclave Logopolis,” concluded the Doctor.

Lady Trey frowned. “I thought I was supposed to be the creepy and ruthless one.”

“I know,” he admitted, “but I wanted to give it a try.”

“But you don’t like it?”

“Not particularly.” The Doctor took a deep breath, spinning about so his back was facing the controls and he was leaning against the console, arms folded. “So, just to sum up: Zanjiku’s too unstable to return to, and that’s assuming the Daleks don’t send a fleet to find out why it hasn’t been pulped like the rest of the system. So all our refugee time sensitives are trapped here, we don’t have the resources to look after them much longer, and our main supplier is now a salamander-shaped vegetable.”

“If you want to look at the negatives…” agreed Lady Trey thoughtfully.

“Good point.” He shot her a sideways glance. “What news of the Cruciform?”

“Well, it’s not the sort of news item you’d find on Public Register Video. Not even the current President is stupid enough to alarm Gallifrey by telling all and sundry he’s lost the only thing between the Daleks and total victory.”

“But?” he prompted.

But the signs are the Time Lords have lost full control. All the different timelines are starting to collapse into each other like a house of cards folding in on itself. Battles not yet fixed are spilling out – the entire Helical Galaxy has been turned into a temporal fossil, and the Eternals have decided it’s time to run. The Daleks turning planet to dust is probably the mildest of the carnage happening right now.”

“A grim picture,” the Doctor sighed.

“The grimmest,” Lady Trey agreed.

“No, the grimmest will be a picture with nothing but Daleks in it.”

“There’s no evidence the Daleks have actually taken the Cruciform,” she reminded him.

“Daleks don’t need propaganda, Romana. Why would they lie about it?”

“A Time Lord betrayed us to the Daleks?” She shook her head in weary disbelief. “Not even Darkel would have gone that far. And she and they shared an anagram!”

The Doctor didn’t smile. “We both know who the War Council put in charge of the Cruciform, Romana,” he reminded her.

“Even so, would the Master really betray all of creation to the Daleks?” asked Lady Trey. “Could you believe he’d be stupid enough to do something like that?”

“No,” the Doctor admitted at length. “But I can certainly believe he’d pretend to do it, as part of some elaborate bluff, and for it all to go wrong. And without the Cruciform holding reality in check, the known universe will start to fray at the edges – maybe even rip apart completely under the strain.”

“Things aren’t damaged beyond repair yet,” Lady Trey said firmly, then reached out and stroked his rough, stubbly cheek. “And I still have a modicum of faith in you.” She looked around the brightly-lit neo-futurist control room as though noticing it for the first time. “I love what you’ve done with the place,” she whispered to him conspiratorially. “It’s salubriously minimal, isn’t it?”

“The latest craze on Gallifrey,” the Doctor agreed, appreciating the change of subject. “Presumably all the War-born TARDISes are like this, designed to cope better with vitreous time spillage. I suppose the coral feng shei helps…”

“Yes, it looks like your TARDIS is now the most advanced one in the Enclave,” Lady Trey smirked. “Certainly it’s the only one that stands a chance of vortex travel. The rest of the TARDISes are all but marooned here until the continuum settles down. Unless you know a way to transmit the upgrade to the other ships?”

The Doctor blew out his cheeks. “To tell you the truth, Romana, I wouldn’t have a clue where to start. It’s times like this I wish K9 was still around.”

“Well, until he turns up again, it looks like all the other exits have been blocked,” Lady Trey mused sadly. “And in the meantime we circle ever-closer to the drain.”

“Flame,” the Doctor corrected.

“No, drain,” Lady Trey insisted flatly.

“You know, Romana, while I can’t think of a way to patch the upgrade into all the other TARDISes,” he said carefully, “it occurs to me the latest model of the TARDIS will have been designed to treat vitreous time like water off a duck’s back. I could even tell you my plan to get hold of such a vehicle.”

“That you could,” the Time Lady confirmed.

“Well, it’s how I always get hold of TARDISes,” the Doctor grinned. “Borrow them.”

Lady Trey’s widened in shock and her ice-cool composure and she whirled to face her companion. “Doctor, you can’t go back to Gallifrey – certainly not after last time!”

“Ooh, a challenge!” gasped the Doctor gleefully.

“All the access and transponder codes in your TARDIS have been revoked,” Lady Trey insisted. “Every last security privilege you had was stripped from you! Even if they don’t shoot you down with timonic missiles, you’d never get past the transduction barriers!”

“Ye of too much faith, Romana,” the Doctor tutted. “Getting inside is the easy bit.”

“And how do you intend to get out again?”

“Well, I’m sure the Battle TARDIS I steal will be fully authorized to leave Gallifrey. That is, after all, the whole point. If the Daleks really have got a sucker-hold on the Cruciform then—”

“—then every Time Lord from here to Zeta Minor will be on full alert!” completed Lady Trey, her pale eyes narrowed in anger. “Always, of course, assuming you’re not blown up in the vitreous time storms brewing as we speak.”

“Then I best get going while said going is good.” His smile dwindled somewhat and he looked at her directly. “Romana, if I don’t do this, we’re as good as dead even if the Time Lords regain control of the Cruciform. Now, I’ll go to Gallifrey and get us a TARDIS that works, straight there and back, no distractions or deviations.”

Lady Trey smiled. “What have I told you about making promises you can’t keep?”

“That you have yet to find such an instance?” the Doctor replied. “Have faith, Romana. The Time Lords for all their faults are the good guys in this conflict. Whatever happens, we’re on the side of the angels and everyone – even the Daleks – know that.”

Lady Trey nodded. “See you around, then?”

“Depend on it,” replied the Doctor. “You won’t even know I’ve been gone.”

Humming something from The Sound of Music to herself, Lady Trey turned and casually strode out through the still-open doors of the TARDIS and back out into the hustle and bustle of the open air markets. As she turned back, she got a last glimpse of the Doctor at the controls before the wooden doors swung shut.

The lantern on the police box roof began to flash brightly in time with the triumphant grinding of its ancient temporal drives. There was a gust of displaced air molecules as the TARDIS blazed electric blue, turned translucent, transparent and then faded away. For a moment the rapid oscillation of the engines twinkled and echoed, then they too were gone and there was no sign that anything had ever been there.

Although there was work for her to do, Lady Trey considered remaining where she was, just in case the TARDIS returned in the next few minutes.

But there was work for her to do, so she didn’t.

***

The TARDIS rattled and swayed like a ship trying to cross a stormy sea, the time rotor moving with strain inside its glass cage. The Doctor had spent most of the journey frantically typing course-corrections into the navigation systems, checking and re-checking the streams of new data on the screen. The trip was getting wilder and more violent as the paths between the temporal storms narrowed and turned back on themselves – any attempt at direct flight would be suicide.

As he reminded himself for the umpteenth time he needed to find some kind of independent flight computer, a reef of vitreous time brushed against the outer shell of the TARDIS. The Doctor stumbled as jets of molten sparks exploded from underneath the console while one side of the console room blackened as if scorched by an invisible fire. The roundels wilted like tar in the ashen bulkhead and the corrosion spread like the TARDIS was pressed up against the burning end of a gigantic cigarette.

Clutching a lever, the Doctor slammed the TARDIS into what felt like a death spin and held tight to the console. The emergency materialization sequence activated and the damaged time ship dropped out of the vortex and back into real space, more sparks showering from the console at wild tangents.

At last the control room steadied out and the blackened corrosion began to slowly dwindle as the auto-repair systems kicked in. The Doctor let out a sigh of relief and sagged slightly as the adrenaline flow ebbed. The vortex was getting worse all the time and soon not even his augmented Type 40 would be able to traverse it...

A check of the instruments showed the TARDIS had fetched up in the interstellar voids outside Gallifrey’s solar system. Deciding he was sick of pin-point navigation, the Doctor activated the spatial drive and send the battered police box hurtling through space towards his home planet. It would take a little longer, but it would be much more relaxing and also give him some time to actually work out his plan.

One of the lights on the control panel beside him began to flash. The Doctor realized it was the emergency transceiver unit, a subroutine of the communications network reserved for receiving and sending distress calls. He couldn’t remember ever using it to send a call for help, but he certainly remembered receiving a few.

Which meant there could only be one reason why it was flashing.

“Yet another distress signal from the low frontier,” he muttered, checking the scanner as a sequence of numbers and information scrolled down the monitor screen. Location data and details streamed across, line by line, complete with a string of coordinates. “Maximum alert, lives in mortal danger. The usual…”

The urgent, modulating signal was transmitting on a broad-bandwidth. The high-pitched bleeping became a humanoid voice crackling from the a speaker grille on the console. “Help me, please! Can anybody hear me? I’m not injured, I’m crashing!

“Oddly specific,” the Doctor mused. “But I have urgent theft to commit on Gallifrey and can’t afford to be sidetracked. On the other hand, there doesn’t seem anyone else around to help. And a doctor is morally obliged to help out when someone’s in trouble…”

The Doctor’s hands moved swiftly over the controls, re-programming the TARDIS to lock the navigational guidance system onto the distress signal. He rushed around the console, adjusting every flight lever he could – a mission of mercy, so plain and straightforward and black and white he was gripped with an almost nostalgic buzz.

“Come on, old girl!” he cried. “You can get there!”

The Doctor squinted at the scanner screen as the image shifted and dimmed to show real space. Filling the upper frame was the dark orange-brown sphere of Karn while below was a grey functional gunship, its starboard wing crackling with tangerine flames, plunging drunkenly towards the surface. It left a thick black trail of vapor crystals in its wake as it entered the atmosphere.

Suddenly the TARDIS tilted at a mad angle and the Doctor was hurled into a heap in the corner as the control room righted itself and finally juddered to a halt. The Doctor staggered to his feet and dashed out the doors, to find himself in a cramped metal passageway, regularly punctuated by angular archways. The lights were flickering, dimming and red warning flashes mingled in time with the background rumble of Karn’s atmosphere scratched against the outer hull.

The Doctor looked around, deducing he was in the entrance foyer of the gunship’s airlock. He caught a glimpse of himself in the frosted glass panel and was taken aback about how untidy and exhausted he looked. His new outfit was beaten and up and frayed from the action and abuse it had been put through, as if his neat composure had finally given up the ghost. Behind him was reflected the TARDIS, its paintwork burnt and scorched away from the fresh vitreous time damage.

They both looked utterly exhausted, pushed to the point of collapse by the War.

He was snapped out of his reverie by a voice from the passageway the TARDIS doors face – the voice of the woman who’d called for help. She sounded more exasperated than afraid, and surprisingly young. Dismissing the thought, the Doctor hurried down the corridor towards the smoke-filled flight deck where the sirens were loudest.

Please state the nature of your ailment or injury,” the flight computer was offering reasonably over a fresh set of detonations.

The Doctor reached the corner and looked up into the long, narrow cockpit. Four of the five flight consoles were unmanned, while the pilot position swung back and forth as the pilot struggled to make the controls respond. The flashing red lights, the blow glow of the computer terminal and the friction glare from the portholes made it hard to see.

“I don’t need a doctor,” the pilot was complaining irritably.

A clear statement of your symptoms will help us provide the medical practitioner appropriate to your individual needs,” the computer pointed out.

“I’m trying to send a distress signal!” snapped the pilot, punching in useless commands and keeping remarkably cool, all told. “Stop talking about doctors!”

“I’m a doctor,” the Time Lord offered, leaning against one of the arches to maintain his balance as a fresh burst of white sparks ripped through the air in front of him.

The pilot seat swung around to reveal a young woman, barely more than a teenager dressed in ill-fitting combat fatigues and a metal breastplate bound in place by an empty ammunition belt. Her dark red hair was parted into a ponytail that hung over her right shoulder and she had a mole just to the left above her upper lip. She stared at him with wide, astonished blue eyes.

“But probably not the one you’re expecting,” the Doctor added with a shrug and crossed past her to examine the main control panel. “Where are the rest of the crew?”

“Teleported off,” the pilot replied, having to shout over the noise.

The Doctor frowned and glanced back at her. “But you’re still here,” he accused.

The pilot shrugged. “I teleported them.”

“Why you?” he asked, checking the nearest console.

The pilot almost laughed as she replied, “Everyone else was screaming.”

The Doctor turned to look at her, impressed. That sort of cool head was in short supply in the universe, and the fact she’d managed to prevent the gunship breaking up so far showed she was talented as a pilot. Definitely the sort of person who’d be perfect to help him navigate a TARDIS, and maybe even be willing to help out on Logopolis.

He held out his hand. “Welcome aboard,” he said grandly.

She giggled, slightly hysterically. “Aboard what?”

“I’ll show you,” said the Doctor, deciding not to waste any longer. They had about one and a quarter minutes before the gunship struck the surface, and even after all these centuries he’d never really found the gift of brief explanations.

Taking the pilot’s hand, he pulled her from the seat and lead her off the flight deck as the computer controls short-circuited and exploded outwards in a brilliant cascade of white flashes that, when faded, left the pair of them stumbling through a darkened corridor. The artificial gravity was beginning to play up and there seemed to be a distinct slant to the floor, as if the flat surface was becoming steeper and steeper.

“Where are we going?” asked the pilot as more junction points overloaded.

“Back of the ship,” he replied, keeping hold on her hand.

“Why?”

“Because the front crashes first – think it though,” he replied as they approached the airlock foyer. A mixture of small fires and emergency lighting meant this part of the gunship was well-illuminated, but with a hellish red glow.

As though sensing their approach, two overlapping metal shields slid across the archway to the foyer, shutting them off from the TARDIS. The battered police box could still be seen through the octagonal viewport, so close yet so far away.

“Oh!” said the Doctor, not bothering to swear. The pilot let go of his hand and stepped back, seemingly overcome with despair. The Time Lord delved into his pocket and collected his sonic screwdriver. “Why did you do that?” he asked the door reproachfully.

The pilot answered. “Emergency protocols,” she explained with a sigh.

The Doctor activated the screwdriver, firing ultrasonic energy around the porthole where the two shields linked. Thankfully the deadlock seals hadn’t activated yet, so it should be simple to reverse the protocol – especially as they had just over a minute left.

“What's your name?” he asked conversationally as he located the lock trigger.

“Cass,” replied the pilot.

“You’re young to be crewing a gunship, Cass.”

“I wanted to see the universe,” she sighed bitterly. “Is it always like this?”

The warble of the screwdriver deepened as it hit the spot, allowing the Doctor to finally look back to his new companion. “If you’re lucky,” he warned cheekily.

The bulkhead split apart as yet another servo-mechanism shorted out in sparks, revealing the battered and burnt police box humming loudly as if eager to be gone. Grinning, the Doctor strode across the foyer towards the TARDIS when he realized Cass wasn’t following. He turned and was unsurprised to see she was staring up at the disguised time machine in bewilderment. He reached out and took her hand once more. “Don’t worry,” he assured her, “it’s bigger on the inside.”

Normally he’d get a puzzled look and then lots of questions as they followed him into the TARDIS before their jaw dropped in amazement at the dimensional transcendence.

Cass tore her gaze from the police box and looked at him with a strange mixture of incredulity and suspicion. “What did you say?” she asked, for the first time sounding unsettled and nervous. She was backing away from him, but he kept hold of her hand. “Bigger on the inside. Is that what you said?” she repeated warily.

The Doctor grinned and nodded at the police box doors which stood tantalizingly close. “Yes,” he confirmed encouragingly. “Come on, you’ll love it!”

Cass looked at the blue box again, as though just noticing it for the first time and pointed at it with her free hand. “Is this a TARDIS?” she asked, sounding fearful.

Of course, the Doctor thought. She’s a Minyan, I should have known that from the logos on the hull outside. Probably a bit awestruck.

Another explosion tore at the infrastructure, reminding him there was less than three-quarters of a minute left. “Yes,” he answered her calmly, “but you’ll be perfectly safe, I promise you…”

Cass wrenched her hand free from his grasp, her face twisted in sudden furious disgust. “Don’t touch me!” she snarled, accompanied by another explosion.

The Doctor stared at her in amazement. Time Lords had a rather awkward relationship with Minyans, but he’d thought he’d cleared the air when he’d helped them settle Minyos II. Unless she had another reason to begrudge people from Gallifrey…

He remembered Garundel’s words as they grew new forests on Zanjiku: a lot of people think they’re doing as much damage as the Daleks...

“I’m not part of the War,” he said perfectly seriously. “I swear to you – I never was…”

She didn’t let him continue. “You’re a Time Lord!” she spat, as though cursing him.

The Doctor took a deep breath and smiled, trying to stay calm. He had thirty-six seconds to try and clear up this misunderstanding and depart. “Yes, I’m a Time Lord,” he admitted patiently, sounding almost pleading, “but I’m one of the nice ones.”

Cass flung herself backwards through the access way, keeping her eyes fixed on him and her hands raised out of reach. “Get away from me!” she ordered, her backpedal only halted by a cascade of molten sparks from the ceiling behind her.

The Doctor couldn’t of anyone who’d ever been so afraid of him as she was, and so he mustered the ultimate argument: “Well, look on the bright side: I’m not a Dalek!” he pointed out, his expression darkening.

Cass snorted contemptuously. “Who can tell the difference any more?”

He right hand shot out to hit the control on her side of the arch and the bulkhead began to re-seal itself, cutting her off from the Doctor and the TARDIS. “Cass!” he shouted, but the doors had shut, dimming the background shudder as the sealed bulkhead prevented the gunship from coming apart at the seams.

The Doctor peered through the octagonal porthole, lit by a flashing red light. He could see Cass on the other side, leaning forward to address him: “It’s deadlocked!” she told him bluntly, and glanced at his hands which were already moving towards his sonic screwdriver. “Don’t even try!”

She was right. A deadlock seal couldn’t be opened with a sonic screwdriver, no matter how determined the operator. The bulkhead would not open unless she wanted it to.

His mental countdown reached twenty-five seconds to impact.

“Cass,” he called evenly, “just open the door – I’m trying to help!”

“Go back to your battlefield!” Cass ordered, then let out a bitter, tearful laugh at his bewildered expression. “You haven’t finished yet,” she said by way of explanation, anger returning to her voice. “Some of the universe is still standing!”

Seventeen seconds.

The Doctor thought of Charley on the R101, and how he’d saved her – and he thought of Lucie on the Dalek saucer and how he’d been able to stop her dying. He’d lost so much but he had the consolation that he’d never wasted a single opportunity to save an innocent life. Survival was only worth it if you could afford the cost to your soul, and if he left Cass here to die he wouldn’t be able to live with himself. Like Zimmerman said, if there was no way round it, you just had to plough on straight through…

At the same time, he could remember the very beginning – in San Francisco 1999 and Grace Holloway. Trying to convince her of his good intentions. Shouting through a locked door. Finally earning her trust when he showed himself quite willing to die, to sacrifice himself, for what he believed in. It worked then. It would now.

“I’m not leaving this ship without you!” he told Cass firmly.

The terrified gunship pilot tried to keep the tremor out of her voice. “Then you're going to die right here,” Cass told him. Shaking her head, and moved back from the porthole. “Best news all day,” she concluded, not quite hiding the anguish she felt.

Maybe not.

Ten seconds until impact.

You hardly know the woman! part of himself reminded him brutally. She doesn’t want to be saved! If she refuses salvation then leave her to die as she wants! Respect her choice! Others need help, those that still possess the will to live!

But Cass did want to live. She was doing this out of some belief that the Time Lords had been corrupted into genocidal maniacs, no more. If he could just talk to her, explain things, that way at least she’d be making a proper decision and if she still wanted to kill herself, then she would. But not like this, in some stupid miscommunication!

He couldn’t open the door in time. He couldn’t use the TARDIS to rescue her; even if he could work out the exact coordinates to materialize around her in a fast-moving object, he’d need help to steer through the carnage of the vortex. All he could do was hope to convince her to open the door and let him drag her to safety kicking and screaming.

And he had less than ten seconds to do it.

“Cass, Cass,” he pleaded, beginning to pound on the bulkhead.

She wasn’t listening any more. She turned away, looking around the shaking, burning corridor as if trying to find something – anything – to distract her for the rest of her life, all six seconds of it.

I am the Doctor.

“Cass? Cass!” he shouted.

At the back of the mind he thought of the future. Had all his efforts to avoid the Time War been worth it? Had he damned whatever was left of the universe to yet more death and destruction? Because if he died now, he’d never know for sure. Once he was gone, what would happen to Romana and the others on Logopolis?

And no whatever happens, whatever the odds, I never, ever, never give up.

“CASS!”

The seconds separating the gunship and the crusty surface of Karn finally ran out.

Suddenly the gunship began to buck wildly and the grinding howl outside became an intolerable shriek. Through the porthole, he could see Cass thrown off her feet and out of few and blinding, smoking flashes. The Doctor was slammed against the bulkhead, wrenching his knee and bruising his face.

In a split-second, a red hot blast engulfed the airlock foyer. He felt his clothes smoldering and the rubber soles of shoes start to melt. A support strut came loose, blazing from end to end, and then a weight slammed into him, wrenching him away from the bulkhead. Brilliant showers of colours filled his senses, the hot spitting energy from the drives darted through him, blackening his internal organs and burning his exposed flesh.

And then everything was peaceful and still again.

***

The Doctor sat upright with a jolt. His thoughts were dipping and swirling too fast for him to catch, and his memories refused to organize themselves. The Time Lord tried to focus on his surroundings, as they went in and out of focus. Was he in some fog-shrouded void? Or the misty shores of the Great Sea of Orbis?

“You all right, skipper?” asked Samson Griffin cheerfully. “Having a bad dream?”

“Ah, he’s been malingering too long, so he has,” Molly O’Sullivan said reproachfully, brushing a stray blonde lock out of her dark blue eyes. “There’s more to do round here than doze eternity away on the beach, The Doctor!”

The Doctor stared blankly at them for a moment, his mind still trying to sort out the sudden overload of ideas and memories that were all clamoring simultaneously for his fuzzy attention. “What’s happening? Where was I?”

“In the middle of a nightmare, it sounded to me,” Liv Chenka said, looking up from the beach towel she shared with the handsome-looking Tal Karus.

“Yes, you could say that,” the Doctor agreed, struggling to his feet. “At least in the sense I thought it was a dream… but I didn’t dream it, did I?”

He was back on Orbis with all the friends he’d lost, that soothing pain-free realm on the outskirts of eternity. If this wasn’t some hallucinatory fog triggered by vitreous time burns, then what was it? He looked along the shore where the Keltians played and the sun shone. It felt like he’d been there for days already, with an ever-changing cast of loved ones and a lack of anyone trying to kill him.

“I always expected to be bored by paradise,” he murmured to himself.

“Which, surely, would defeat the purpose of being here,” said C’rizz, abandoning his paddling in the surf to return to his side. “That time storm pushed you as close to death as you’ve ever been, enough to catch a brief glimpse of what is here.”

“And where is here, C’rizz?” the Doctor asked him.

“Nowhere in particular. Neither here nor there.”

“That’s not the most informative answer.”

“It wasn’t meant to be,” the Eutermisan replied. “Welcome to the afterlife.”

The Doctor blew out his cheeks, still uncomfortable with the idea of death being preferable to anything life had to offer. “I never thought of myself as a quitter.”

“It was time to let go,” Lucie said, approaching through the sand with an ice cream.

“No change to follow?” he asked, accepting the ice cream.

She shrugged her bare shoulders. “Don’t ask me, I wasn’t there.”

“Then it really was the end? Crashing a nameless gunship into a random planet, dying for a terrified Minyan girl who thought I was a worse choice than life?”

“Better than being shot down by a Dalek in the trenches or being turned into frontline canon fodder by the Time Lords,” C’rizz mused, looking out to sea.

The Doctor sighed. “Yes, but as endings go, it still seems a bit… underwhelming.”

“Guess so,” Lucie agreed. “But not half as underwhelming if you died in your sleep with a bowl of onion soup in a retirement home somewhere waiting for Countdown to come on, is it? If it’s a choice between that and going totally kamikaze with a Dalek kill-cruiser and a ticking atom bomb right to the Earth’s core…”

The Doctor laughed. “I’ve missed you so much.”

“Oh, Doctor!” said Charley, pouting. “You’ll make me jealous!”

“Ey, ey,” said Lucie with a grin. “Purely platonic, me and the Doctor. God, that’d be like dating my granddad or something.”

“Or a cool, eccentric uncle?” Charley suggested with a knowing look.

“Either way, I don’t fancy him, Charley. He’s all yours. I’ll stick with Alex.”

The Doctor glanced along the beach. “Alex! Where is that great-grandson of mine?”

“Oh, he’s…” Lucie trailed off. “Well, let’s just say there’s a lot more to do round here than lounge on the beach getting fantastic tans. Soft places where dreams and reality twirl around each other. Couldn’t keep that lad from exploring them even if I tried.”

The Doctor wasn’t quite sure where the others had gone. Had he and Lucie been walking for minutes or hours? They were much further along the shore, but the laughter and songs of the jellyfish were still audible. He’d assumed there would be some kind of celebration for his arrival wherever he was, but Lucie just seemed to want him alone.

“Feels good here, don’t it?” Lucie asked him.

“I suppose so. I’m not sure if you’re really Lucie, but then again I’m not sure if I’m really himself. Perhaps we’re both just memories of the universe, or just two dead people waiting to go wherever it was the dead went.” His smile faded. “Either way, I didn’t save Cass. And I’ll never save anyone else, see my friends, find out how the War ended…”

“Ah, well, whether the War’s still going on or not, it ain’t our problem any more. We’re out of it. Not unless the Time Lords start hold séances for us.” Lucie stopped walking and looked at the Doctor, as if staring into his soul. “Or do you want a second chance?” she asked him, all levity gone.

“Am I in the position to receive one?” he asked her.

“If you get taken before the appropriate time, you might be allowed to balance events,” she replied. “That’s about the closest thing to a get-out clause this place has, and believe me, I looked for one. Took me a long time before accepted this was a one-way deal.”

“Why should it be different for me?” asked the Doctor, frowning.

“Coz you’re the Doctor, ya thick ponce! You’re not like us, you’re a well-complicated event in space and time. The mortal coil’s a lot more tangled around you, and a lot harder for you to shrug off. You’re not dead, not completely. And some folk want you back in the land of the living.”

The Doctor glanced around the shoreline, which seemed unchanged. “And I doubt it’s someone from Logopolis bundling me in Garundel’s regeneration pod?”

“I dunno,” Lucie admitted. “But remember when you were here before? In between life and death? Well, this time it’s different. None of the others are that fussed if someone wants you back. I wouldn’t complain, but I don’t think someone wants to save you out of the goodness of however-many-hearts they have.”

“I’ve been in worse scrapes,” the Doctor noted. “Especially considering I’m dead.”

Lucie didn’t laugh. “You remember back at the beginning, when we were on Phobos? That thing that fed on fear, that you scared to death?”

“I didn’t scare the entity, Lucie. I scared myself. Its empathy did the rest.”

“Yeah. And how did you scare yourself? The things that you were afraid that you might do one day.” Lucie stared at him, her carefree expression replaced with hurt. “Not ancient evils or the end of everything. Your own future.”

“A future that can’t happen while I’m dead,” the Doctor mused. “But if I’m alive…”

“I could be wrong,” Lucie sighed. “Bloomin well hope I am.”

The Doctor scratched the back of his head, his expression troubled. “But I don’t know how anyone, no matter what their intentions, could bring me back. I died. It happened. It was witnessed. It was inevitable.”

“But is it unchangeable?” asked Lucie pointedly.

The Doctor opened his mouth to reply when Lucie and the beach were beginning to fade before his eyes. Orbis was sliding away from him, gently fading into nothingness. He blinked, getting the impression he was being pulled away from oblivion faster and faster. Was this what Grace had experience all those years ago, back when he’d started out?

“Wait!” he shouted. “If I’m being brought back to life, then what about—”

***

“—Cass?!?”

A horrible, hideous all-too-real pain tore through his bones, ripping up through his spine and exploding against the base of his skull. The Doctor jerked backward, his back slamming against something hard and uneven but undeniably solid. His eyes snapped open and he saw he was sitting on the floor of a cave, lit by flickering fire and carpeted by something resembling straw or hay.

Sensations sharpened. His eyes were stinging, his head was throbbing and there was a vile taste like badly-stewed apricots in his mouth. He seemed to soaked head to toe in grime and sweat, and there was dried blood crusted to his forehead. The blood rushing to his head made it hard to concentrate. The Doctor couldn’t remember ever arriving at this place or why his ribs hurt so abominably.

Directly in front of him stood three female figures dressed in long, vermillion robes. The centre figure clutched a bronze goblet whose contents were steaming, while on either side the others carried spoon-like objects that supported brightly-burning candles. Somewhere in the distance, a single voice sang a mournful wordless song but the Doctor wasn’t sure if it was inside or outside his head.

Another of the robed figures stepped into vision and knelt in front of him so their faces were level. A woman with a craggy, age-weathered face and long colourless hair, wrapped in a dark red cloak and what seemed to be ceremonial armor. She was familiar in so many ways, yet at the same time he was sure they hadn’t met before.

She spoke in a calm, reassuring voice. “If you refer to your companion,” she told him, “we are still attempting to extract her from the wreckage.”

He looked up at her, trying to sift through rapidly fading memories. “She wasn’t my companion,” the Doctor replied weakly, automatically using the past tense.

“She’s almost certainly dead,” said the woman coolly, not bothering to sugar-coat the fact. If her use of the present tense raised any hopes, they were certainly dashed as she added, “No one could survive that crash.”

“I did,” the Doctor pointed out warily. For some reason he did not trust his rescuers, and felt certain they were not helping him out of kindness.

“No,” the robed woman corrected grimly, still showing no sign of wanting to spare his feelings. “We restored you to life, but it’s a temporary measure.”

Someone had been talking to him, warning him of being brought back to life by people who wanted him alive for some reason. That perhaps he was better off dead.

The woman stared at him unblinkingly, as though refusing to let his attention drift away from her. “You have a little under four minutes,” she concluded.

On instinct, the Doctor decided not to take the situation seriously. This woman was humorless enough for the pair of them. “Four minutes?” he repeated fearfully. “That’s ages! What if I get bored? I’ll need a television! A couple of books!” He shot pleading looks to the other robed women in the cave. “Anyone for chess?” His expression sobered and he looked his rescuer right in the eye. “Bring me knitting,” he ordered.

The woman did not smile, but nor did she lose her temper. There was disapproval in her eyes as she said, “You have so little breath left – spend it wisely.”

The Doctor regarded her. The plea was not for his benefit. They definitely needed something from him. But who was this group who had turned up to rescue him from a gunship that had crashed into Karn?

“Hang on,” he said slowly.

Of course. He’d known this woman, lifetimes ago. She’d been called Ohica then, but she’d regenerated since – probably even changed her name to mark her new existence. The High Priest of the Sisterhood of Karn was now duty-bound to age and die, albeit very slowly, as a sacrifice to prevent the Sisterhood falling back into stasis. Death was the price of progress, as the old saying said. And Karn had seen some progress.

“Is it you?” he asked, staring at the face of the woman he’d met before. Ohica, Ohira, Ohida… what was this one called? Ohila? “Am I back on Karn?” Deciding not to waste his remaining three-and-a-bit minutes on his backside, he stiffly forced himself to his feet. He had been slumped against a roughly-hewn stone alter with a shallow crater-like dent in the middle, as though designed as a place for the blood to collect when bodies were sacrificed upon it. At the top of the altar was another burning candle atop a stand and beyond it more women in red silk robes, holding steaming goblets or candles.

Yes, he’d been here before. With Lucie and Straxus, and before that with Sarah. When they’d fought Morbius and his cultists. But Morbius was dead now, three times over and all but forgotten now there was a Time War to worry about. He’d thought Karn had been abandoned centuries ago, but that obviously wasn’t the case any more.

Once secure in balance, he turned to see all the other woman in the cavern, most of them avoiding his gaze for some reason or another. “You’re the Sisterhood of Karn? Keepers of the Flame of Utter Boredom?” he asked politely.

“Eternal Life,” corrected Ohila frostily, rising to her feet.

“That’s the one,” the Doctor confirmed, noting that no one had even threatened to behead him on the spot for that blasphemy. They were desperate all right. And had he realized the Sisterhood were players in the Time War, they would have been top of the list of groups, orders and affiliations he was desperate to avoid.

He continued to inspect his surroundings with sideway glances and uncertain steps around the altar. Maybe he could just crack incredibly witty remarks until whatever mortal stasis they’d put him in broke down and he died for good?

“Mock us if you will, but our elixir can trigger your regeneration – bring you back,” Ohila announced with her ever-present dignity.

The Doctor said nothing, waiting for the catch. There was no point pretending this body wasn’t on its last legs, and that regeneration was the only real option if he wanted to survive. But the question was obvious: why hadn’t they already given him the elixir if they just wanted to save his life?

“Time Lord science is elevated here on Karn,” Ohila reminded him, eyes widening as they always did whenever she boasted about her civilization. “The change doesn’t have to be random.” She stretched out her arms, gesturing to all the varied goblet bearers and their steaming cargo. “Fat or thin? Young or old? Man or woman?”

The Doctor remembered his exile and the choice of new bodies the Time Lords had dangled in front of him. They, at least, hadn’t pretended to give a pair of fetid dingo’s kidneys about his ultimate fate. No ingratiating sales pitch there.

“Why would you do this for me?” he asked suspiciously.

“You have helped us in the past,” replied Ohila simply.

The Doctor scowled. “You were never big on gratitude,” he reminded her. The last time they’d encountered him, the Sisterhood had repeatedly tried to kill him even though they’d been allies. They’d metaphorically stabbed him in the back, leaving him for dead on Orbis while they stole his TARDIS as a Time Lord scalp.

Ohila regarded him, and then abandoned the charitable act. “The war between the Daleks and the Time Lords threatens all of reality. You are the only hope left.”

Begging for salvation? No, these weren’t pleas for help. They wanted him to fight for them, to do what they were unwilling to do. The Sisterhood would hide in their caves while he acted as a glorified bodyguard – and if he helped protect his world and the wider universe, well, two birds with one stone?

Well, no. He had refused to fight before and he wasn’t going to change his mind now. He’d always believed that it was better to negotiate to fight, better to fight than surrender, and better to surrender than die. But now he was dead, all he had to lose was his soul. And he wasn’t going to abandon that for these sanctimonious sisters.

He’d fought alongside space marines and resistance fighters and guerillas and Thals. He’d tried more than once to assassinate Davros. He’d sparked civil wars and destroyed planets and unleashed plagues. None of them had helped. There was nothing he could offer the war effort, whether the Time Lords were winning or losing. Not for the Sisters, not for Romana, not for Lucie and certainly not for himself.

If the Doctor was the only hope left, then the situation was hopeless.

“It’s not my war,” he said coldly. “I will have no part of it.”

“You can’t ignore it forever,” Ohila replied.

That was certainly true. It had started while he was exiled in the Divergent Universe, escalated while he was trapped on Orbis, and after ruining Straxus’ retrogenitor scheme with Molly O’Sullivan he’d been doing his best to avoid it ever since. But the vortex was drowning in vitreous time, and not even Logopolis would be free for much longer…

“I help where I can,” the Doctor insisted feverishly. A good man, a healer, a helper of people could not bring a war like this to its end. He could not take part in a conflict more despicable than the enemies it was being waged against. “I will not fight!”

“Because you are ‘the Good Man’, as you call yourself?” mocked Ohila contemptuously.

“I call myself ‘the Doctor’!” he corrected her.

“It is the same thing in your mind?”

“I’d like to think so.”

“In that case, ‘Doctor’,” said Ohila, turning away from him, “attend to your patient.”

The Doctor followed her gaze and saw two sisters were approaching out of the darkness, carrying a broken body in between them. Instinctively, he backed away to the top of the altar they wordlessly laid the corpse down on the stone, then turned and left the way they came without a backwards glance.

It was Cass.

Her hair was a loose, singed mess around her flushed face. There was a nasty burn on her cheek and dried blood hid a jagged slash along her jawline. The way her arms and legs lay showed numerous compound fractures and broken bones, her armor and flight suit doing little more than keeping her corpse in one piece.

The Doctor stared at her incredulously, almost working on automatic as he bent over her and ran the sonic screwdriver along her body searching for vital signs. The readouts showed her body had suffered much more than his had before he’d died; not just injuries from the crash but the ionic reefs from the explosions had flash-fried her nervous system, almost mummifying her…

Cass was dead, just another casualty of the Time War.

Just? Just? There’s no such thing as “just!”

“You’re wasting your time,” hissed Ohila, as though annoyed that he was following her instruction. “She is beyond even our help!”

The Doctor might have snapped there, reminding it was their “help” that had crashed the gunship and killed Cass in the first place. But what was the point? The Sisters were already acting like he was some stubborn, sanctimonious fool they were being forced to nursemaid. There was no point trying to appeal to their better nature.

The Time Lord switched off the sonic screwdriver, accepting that there was no miracle this time. At least he could console himself Cass was in a better place now, somewhere not even the Time War could reach…

“She wanted to see the universe,” he said dully, thinking how similar they’d been.

“She didn’t miss much,” observed Ohila dryly, a cruel twist to her bloodless lips as she studied the Doctor. “It’s very nearly over.”

Absently, he realized that the Sisterhood were aware the Cruciform had fallen and without it time was being torn to shreds as space burnt away like candle wax. No wonder they’d lunged at the chance to get him here, a gift from providence.

The Doctor still couldn’t take his eyes off Cass’s body, even as he pocketed the sonic screwdriver. It wasn’t so much that he hadn’t saved her life, but that his mere presence had driven her to suicide. “I could’ve saved her,” he said, barely aware he was speaking out aloud. He reached out to her, remembering how so recently the bulkhead had stopped him from taking her hand. “I could have got her off, but she wouldn’t listen…”

“Then she was wiser than you,” Ohila snapped impatiently.

Startled out of his daze, he looked up at the priestess who continued remorselessly.

“She understood there was no escaping the Time War. You are a part of this, Doctor – whether you like it or not!”

“I would rather die,” he told her contemptuously. Ironic, of course; he was willing to sacrifice his life in the vain hope he could have saved Cass from her own suicidal despair. But he would still willingly choose oblivion than help the Sisterhood, because he knew what they had done to bring him here, what they wanted from him, what they would do to make him the man to end things.

“You’re dead already,” Ohila reminded him bluntly, stating the obvious seemingly out of sheer spite. “How many more will you let join you?” she asked casually

He didn’t have anything to say to that.

Ohila pressed home her advantage, looking down at Cass’ body. “If she could speak, what would she say?” she whispered, already knowing the answer.

“To me? Nothing,” the Doctor grunted. “I’m a Time Lord – everything she despised.”

It was the wrong answer as far as Ohila was concerned. “She would beg your help!” she rasped angrily. “As we beg your help now!” Genuine fear crossed her lined face. “The universe stands on the brink!” she sobbed, despite her horror still happily stating the patently deductible. “Will you let it fall?”

The rest of the Sisterhood were no longer contemplating the ornaments they held. They were all looking at him, so young but so old, and none of them hiding the hope in their eyes. Maybe this was the Doctor’s last victory, to knock the Sisters of the Flame off their blood-soaked pedestal and admit just how powerless and desperate they really were.

Ohila indicated the sisters holding the goblets on side of the cavern. “Fast? Or strong?” She indicated other options to left. “Wise? Or angry? What do you need now?”

He’d been trying to save lives for so long, trying to minimize the damage and help where he could. But he wasn’t succeeding, was he? Worlds were being destroyed, his friends and his family were dying, but he kept doing to same things, over and over again and expecting different results. The definition of insanity. And what had his principles achieved – given him the chance to despair as Cass died just beyond his reach.

The Doctor hadn’t saved Cass.

The Doctor couldn’t end the War.

But maybe someone else could.

Someone who could walk away from Karn and into battle, with no title or burdens and the capacity to end the Time War and save everyone in the universe. Someone who could fight. Someone who deserved the faith of others.

He’d been lead here and nowhere else. All the running and laughing and cleverness and loss was forcing the Doctor to be part of a conflict he was loathe to touch. And now there was no turning back. If an innocent had to fight evil, he had to be able to take a little bit of that evil into himself, that’s how all the fairy tales went didn’t they?

The Doctor looked down at the body on the stone slab, one of countless lives beyond anyone’s help. If he chose right, if the Sisterhood didn’t cheat him, then he could become a man who could make amends to those he’d let down. He reached out to touch the cold, lifeless skin of Cass’s face, stroking the hair out of her closed eyes. He noticed the ammunition belt around her torso, burned and frayed but still serviceable.

The baldric came away from Cass’s body and the Doctor held it in his hands, caressing the leather material, feeling its weight. He gazed at it, remembering another time he’d held a belt like this – in Walker General Hospital, aeons ago. Newly-regenerated and amnesiac, he’d chosen new clothes, a cowboy outfit. He hadn’t known who he was, but instinctively he’d thrown away the prop gun-belt.

But now he knew who was going to be, and what he would wear.

“Warrior,” he said, with the cool admiration he’d had for the Brigadier, Sara and Jamie and Leela and Ace and Sally and Lysandra and Destrii. Not killers or thugs or violent fools. Fighters and protectors, each with a moral code. Able to take life, but never lightly, never cruelly, never cowardly. Those who could do what he couldn’t.

“Warrior?” repeated Ohila slowly, like a mother confirming precisely what a young child wanted for their birthday, making sure they didn’t change their mind. There was no turning back. Then she nodded and went to one of the sisters at the rear of the cavern.

The Doctor remembered how Cass had been shouting that she didn’t need a doctor as she wrestled with the controls of the gunship. She hadn’t needed a Doctor, and nor did anyone else, not even Enclave Logopolis. “I don’t suppose there’s any need for a doctor any more,” he reflected thoughtfully, not letting him take his eyes off the bandolier. His voice hardened. “Make me a warrior – now!” he ordered, worried his resolve would fail him if he had time to have second thoughts.

Ohila returned to his field of vision, one steaming goblet at the ready. Of course she knew what he’d choose, and of course she’d have the drink at the ready. “I took the liberty of preparing this one myself,” she said conversationally, confirming his suspicions.

The goblet was warm in his hands. The Doctor focused on the sensation, trying to ignore the ever-increasing pain in his ribs and the ache in his heavy limbs, threatening to drag him back down into oblivion. His dying body was crying out that he couldn’t do any more, that he didn’t need to prove himself, just let go. The resurrecting elixir was wearing off, and soon he’d be joining Cass and all the others in everlasting sleep...

No. Focus on the goblet.

It was almost too good a deal. Create the man who could end the War, and by doing so finally bring something approaching peace and harmony to this rotten, poisoned universe. All those untold trillions of people who would be free of carnage not their making. The Sisterhood of Karn wouldn’t waste this ceremony on anyone who didn’t have the power to save all of creation, after all.

And all he had to do was to die. Except, of course, he was already dead and his time was drawing to a close. Was that why it was getting so hard to breathe and why his hands were shaking? Or was he just frightened?

He thought again of the future. Would anyone actually know the truth of what happened here today? Or would they invent stories and legends of how the Doctor had come to the Sisters willingly, desperate for their help to unleash his darker nature? Would they imagine grand speeches and noble sentiments of how he could not stand by while his friends and family were endangered? Would they think he begged for this chance to give up everything he had ever stood for or hoped to stand for? Or would they dismiss him as a cowardly deserter who had abandoned everyone on Logopolis, and scornfully mock the idea he might have perished in a blaze of glory in the war?

Always assuming there would be survivors to pass judgment, of course.

But at the end of the day, it didn’t matter if he was willing or unwilling. This was the only choice left, the only decision left to make. Stop being the Doctor and become the person who could make this terrible, impossible conflict end. Make the ultimate sacrifice and put all the responsibility on the shoulders of someone else.

Of all the ways the Doctor had imagined he might die, he’d never expected to hate himself with his last breath.

“Get out,” he ordered. He wanted this moment to himself; if he had a choice, he wanted to die alone just as he’d told Charley so long ago. But there was also the fact this new man, purposefully born into the hell of war, could be danger to everyone around him. There was no telling what might happen. “Get out, all of you!” he roared, not longer able to keep the fear and anger out of his voice.

Ohila lowered her eyes, acknowledging his wish. There were ancient rites not even the Time War could override, and the rights of a dying Time Lord were one of them. Wordlessly, the sisters began to file out and Ohila was the last as she headed for the exit to the cavern. She who had granted him his death.

The Doctor tried to brace himself for his act of suicide so a better man might live.
“Will it hurt?” he called, a tremble in his voice from his fear of the answer.

Ohila didn’t turn around. “Yes,” she replied calmly, heading out.

“Good,” he muttered. That, at least, would provide some atonement for what would happen next. Absently, it occurred to him that he’d been resurrected for three minutes and twenty seconds out of a possible four minutes, so he still had another forty seconds left to enjoy himself before taking the final step embarking on inevitable…

Cowardice. No other word for it.

For what seemed to be the first time, he had a chance to face oblivion with dignity, to prepare himself for death. And to that, he had to acknowledge those he’d traveled with on all those happy adventures full of smiles and danger, before he’d lost them all to fate. But those times were at an end; he would lose no more friends for a warrior would have no friends to lose in the first place.

“Charley, C’rizz, Lucie, Tamsin, Molly…” he called briskly, as though about to outline a plan for them to follow, a final order to run for their lives. He would never see any of them again, and it was doubtful he would even speak of them again. “Friends and companions I have known, I salute you. And Cass? I apologize.”

He managed to look away from the goblet, but all he could see was the body on the altar. Her lifeless face looked up at him. The apology was all he could provide; he’d died for this complete stranger, but he couldn’t save her. Not even becoming a warrior, breaking every oath and promise he’d made, could make amends.

Odd that she was the final push he needed to make this choice, someone who would never be able to benefit from it. The man he was about to become, the warrior he was about to drink to, would not save lives but end them. Once the War was over, maybe then the universe would need a healer. Until then, it would make do with a warrior christened in the blood of a forgotten gunship pilot called Cass.

It was time for the demons to run.

A good man was about to go to war.

“Physician, heal thyself,” he murmured, giving himself one final order.

The Doctor brought the goblet to his lips and drank the freezing-cold elixir, but immediately his body grew warm as though he was supping piping-hot liquid. He drained the last drops, feeling as though he’d just swallowed molten lava, but it coiled and writhed in the pit of his stomach a snake trying to shed its skin.

He staggered backwards as the muscles throughout his body seemed to slacken then lock rigid. The empty goblet slipped from his nerveless fingers and clattered to the cave floor, forgotten as his skin tightened around him. His whole body felt as though it was being wound up like a spring, tighter and tighter until every cell began to burn.

Groggily, the Doctor peered at his outstretched hands as his flesh began to crawl with exuberant orange light. The burning glare was shining from his fingers and thumbs, glowing brilliantly from the sleeves of his battered frock coat. He watched the orange-yellow glow pulse and dance before his eyes, so different from the gentle regenerative flux he’d known. Would it always be like this from now on?

Suddenly the searing fire filling his entire body detonated with the force of a supernova, illuminating the whole cave. Having each and every cell and molecule torn apart and forged anew was agonizing, but this was worse than any other regeneration the Doctor had endured. An involuntary scream died in his raw and burning throat.

The Time Lord doubled over in anguish, unable to bear the chain reaction coursing through his veins and tearing him apart from the inside out. He fell to his knees, then pitched onto his side beside the stone altar. He could feel his face melting and reconstructing itself as the energy relentlessly blasted out of his itching skin.

Somewhere through the haze of scalding pain far, far away from the raging golden flames burning away everything he was, the Doctor made an effort to sit up, but his limbs refused to obey him. He’d wanted to die on his feet, but in the end he failed at even that.

Then the glistening cacophony of swirling light and sound finally became too much for his ailing senses and he was falling, spiraling down into the hot, golden brightness. Suddenly the pain melted away and blazing orange inferno was replaced with a beautiful pink-blue haze which got brighter and thicker, soothing him and making him feel the way he had at the beginning, back in San Francisco when everything was possible…

***

The beaches of Orbis drifted back together around the Doctor. The burning pain was gone, and he flexed his limbs in wordless relief.

“Have you ever had one of those nights where you drink one cocktail, pass out and wake up feeling like a totally different person who really wants to pick a fight?” asked Lucie, looking out to sea. Her voice was distant.

“I have now,” the Doctor said, getting to his feet to join her.

“Remember when Straxus thought I was going to be the next Margaret Thatcher? Establish regimes, be the girl who grew up to be terrible things? There were times I almost wanted it to be true. Better than being Lucie Miller, common as dirt, no one special who never quite made it…”

“You were special,” said the Doctor firmly. “The best human I knew.”

“And you were the best alien I knew. I know it all sound a bit cub scouts, but we really made a difference,” she observed. “Without changing what we were.”

Charley, Tamsin and the others were approaching with welcoming smiles. There was no doubt this situation was a definite improvement on the plane of reality he’d just left.

“Third time lucky?” suggested Charley with a smirk.

“You could say that I just couldn’t keep away,” he replied with a sad smile.

“But you can’t return this time,” C’rizz reminded him. “For better or for worse, someone else has fallen into the world and taken your place.”

Tamsin contemplated her half-empty glass of bourbon, one dark eyebrow arched in question. “None of us got that chance, you know. Mind you, who could they have got to replace me, eh?”

Lucie smiled insincerely at her. “I know, they’d be spoiled for choice!”

“Thank you, Tamsin Drew! Always the bridesmaid, never the bride!” Gemma laughed.

They laughed together, and the Doctor felt himself relaxing even further. The problems and pains of his old life were all but forgotten. He thought back to Karn and the Sisterhood, but it all seemed unreal and unimportant. His death, his life, everything in between was like a dream. Had he really chosen to be a warrior? Was the next incarnation going to make amends and put the universe to rights? Or was it just a last hopeful dream in the mind of a dying Time Lord?

“I suppose I’ll never know,” he murmured to himself.




Last Edited By: CaseyJ Apr 23 14 5:07 AM. Edited 1 time.