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by Casey J


Appalled, Mel stared at the Doctor across the top of the control console. ‘I don’t believe it!’ she protested. ‘You don’t trust me, is that it?’

The Doctor peered through the crystal cylinder of the time rotor as it rose and fell between them. ‘Not at all, Mel – what on Earth ever gave you that idea?’ he asked, chuckling uneasily.

‘Then why won’t you let me fly the TARDIS?’ Mel demanded. ‘You’ve been teaching be the basics for months! I know how to set coordinates, disconnect the multi-loop stabilizer and also perform an emergency stop at three seconds’ notice…’

‘Yes, but you don’t know it all,’ the Doctor replied crossly.

‘Which is why you’re supposed to be teaching me!’ Mel concluded, winning the argument neatly as far as she was concerned. ‘Ever since you regenerated, you’ve refused to lift a finger to show me how to pilot the TARDIS and you won’t tell me why!’

‘There hasn’t been the right time to do it,’ the Doctor explained, glowering at the controls. ‘Ever since the Rani crashed the TARDIS, the old girl’s been on the knife-edge of total collapse. I know it may seem to be running completely smoothly, but just one thing wrong – one miss-set digit, one cross-wired zig-zag plotter – and the whole blessed machine could blow itself to smithereens!’

Mel put her hands on her hips. ‘Oh, and I suppose I can’t be trusted not to do that!’

‘No you can’t!’ snapped the Doctor, losing his temper. ‘You’re a very intelligent young woman, Mel – but you’re a human being. You can’t think in more than five dimensions.’ He waved a hand at the rows of keypads and blinking lights on the console. ‘Every single control has over a hundred different functions in any given situation – even the door control! The same sequence of switches can fling us through every point in the universe or compress us to the interior of an atom! And until the TARDIS is once more in complete working order, I say you’re not to touch a single solitary button! At all!’

There was an awkward silence as the red-faced Time Lord calmed down again. He snatched his straw hat from the top of the time rotor and jammed it on his head the wrong way round.

‘Clear?’ he demanded, then stormed out through the internal door to the rest of the TARDIS.

Mel stayed where she was, arms folded, and scowled at his back. For the umpteenth time she found herself wishing the TARDIS hadn’t fallen into the Rani’s trap, and the Doctor hadn’t regenerated. She often found herself missing the old, loud and colourful version of the Doctor who had cheerfully – if grudgingly – instructed her how to pilot the time machine and trusted her with his life. Every time she thought she was getting used to the new Doctor, he would pull a stunt like this, and leave her feeling like an unwanted passenger stuck with a total stranger.

She was broken out of her thoughts by a low droning chirp from the control console. One of the computer read-out screens had lit up with a flashing message.

QUANTUM FLUX OVERLOAD
REALIGN COMPENSATOR SYSTEMS
IMMEDIATELY!!


Mel noticed a slide control right in front of the screen had illuminated as if trying to show which part of the console needed to be realigned so urgently. The control flashed in time with the screen and the annoying droning bleep from the console.

Mel strongly considered calling the Doctor back and getting him to handle this simple problem, just to show him the downside of wanting to be in charge all the time. Then it occurred to her it was needlessly cruel to humiliate him; she’d do it herself to prove a point.

She reached out, grabbed the slide control and pulled it towards her.

Instantly the console seemed to lunge upwards to her at the exact moment the floor dropped away beneath her feet. Mel wasn’t sure if the artificial gravity was malfunctioning or if the TARDIS was actually starting to roll counter-clockwise, but either way she was flung hard against the wall, banging her head against the ceiling of the TARDIS control room. Beneath her she could see a string of firework-like explosions ripping their way through each of the six control panels, spraying sparks of flame and choking blue smoke in all directions.

The TARDIS continued to spin, and Mel was pressed hard against the ceiling before tumbling down the other wall to hit the floor near the outer doors as a fresh chain of explosions tore through the console. Through the smoke and noise, she saw a figure rush through the inner door and lunge at the control panels, trying to regain control.

Despite everything, Mel recognized the red patchwork coat and the curly blond hair – but she passed out long before she could say anything. The last thing she saw was the glass time rotor cracking apart and then exploding in a glaring fireball of molten glass…

***

Mel opened her eyes.

She was lying on her bed in her quarters elsewhere in the TARDIS, looking up at the ceiling. Although she clearly remembered the explosions in the control room moments before, she felt completely calm and relaxed, as if rested after a long sleep. Had it all been a nightmare?

‘Mel!’ called a familiar voice from her bedroom door.

‘Doctor?’ asked Mel sleepily, before remembering why the voice was familiar.

The door clicked open an a curly-blond head poked around the corner. ‘Not feeling under the weather are you?’ asked the newcomer in his clipped, theatric tones. ‘I can’t for the lives of me remember a time you’d slept in! Shouldn’t you be in the gym exercising or perhaps sacrificing a carrot to the great god of Vegetarianism or something?’

‘Doctor,’ repeated Mel, amazed. It was the Doctor she had first met, the larger-than-life version before he had been transformed into the shorter Scottish model with the umbrella. Seeing him was like bumping into someone long dead, a ghost from the past. Mel gaped.

The Old Doctor sensed her unease and stepped into the bedroom. ‘Melanie?’ he asked, using her full name whenever he was concerned. ‘Is something the matter?’

‘I… I thought you were… well, not dead…’

‘Did you? And just whatever gave you that impression?’

‘The Rani!’ Mel exclaimed, remembering that fateful encounter. ‘She forced the TARDIS to crash-land, and you regenerated – you turned into someone completely different!’

The Old Doctor chortled. ‘My dear Mel, you clearly haven’t shaken away the cobwebs from Morpheus’ embrace, have you? That landing was rather bumpy, I seem to recall, but it would take more than a bang on the head to trigger the regeneration process! In fact, I think you might have been the one suffering cranial trauma…’

Mel shook her head. ‘No, no. You changed and then the Rani drugged you, she dressed herself up as me and tried to trick you into helping her…’

Her former mentor tutted. ‘My, my, we arereinterpreting events, aren’t we? How could the Rani impersonate you? You’d never met before. No, she did give me that amnesia drug and try to fool me into collaborating with her, but she dressed up as Peri. Surprisingly convincing with the accent, one has to admit.’ There was uncomfortable pause. ‘This isn’t some mere nightmare, is it, Mel? Some sort of short-term memory loss? Delayed concussion? We’ve both been hit on the head too often for comfort. Perhaps we should seek medical help of some kind?’

Mel wanted to protest, but even as the Old Doctor had spoken it was if she remembered exactly what had happened. She recalled finding the Doctor in the Rani’s lab, working on her machine, convinced she was some imposter – but she also remembered not recognizing the new man in the straw hat at the same time she felt hurt the Old Doctor didn’t recognize her. Both versions of events seemed equally dream-like, yet equally valid.

Yet, there was only one Doctor in front of her. The one who always insisted he was in the prime of his life and didn’t need to go on a diet, but who she’d still convinced to shed a few pounds over the course of their adventures. How often had he found an excuse to keep her up late playing chess or monopoly or multidimensional tennis? The old Doctor, who despite their bluster and fractious friendship, seemed to need her much more than his replacement…

There was no sign of him now, or any of the damage done to the TARDIS. It seemed that he only existed in her memories and everything else had simply dissolved like a cloud of steam, to be forgotten like a dream.

‘The quantum flux,’ she said slowly. ‘The TARDIS was caught in one.’

‘Hmm? Oh, that.’ The Doctor waved a dismissive hand. ‘That was yesterday. We passed smoothly with nary a flicker of the dimensional osmosis dampener. Remember?’

Yes, as a matter of fact, she did. Suddenly feeling better, Mel asked, ‘Where are we?’

‘In your bedroom aboard the TARDIS.’

Mel rolled her eyes, enjoying his over-literal humor even so. ‘No, where is the TARDIS?’

‘Ah, yes. I was going to tell you. We’ve landed on a planet called Aquatica in the Earth year 5901,’ the Doctor explained. ‘It’s a wonderful planet and been several lifetimes since I was last there. If you’re feeling up to it, I’m sure it would be a wonderful place for a holiday?’

The Doctor let out a philosophical sigh, as if assuming she wouldn’t be remotely interested in the paradise world lying outside the doors. Mel had easily worked out his playful tactics shortly after their first meeting, and oddly she missed his childishness.

‘Ready when you are!’ she replied with a grin.

***

‘A wonderful place for a holiday?’ Mel exclaimed as she stepped from the TARDIS into a monochrome realm. The blue of the TARDIS, the yellow glow of its interior and of course the mismatch of the Doctor’s outfit were the only source of colour here.

The time machine had landed in what seemed to be a swamp that had frozen over in winter, with strange vine-like growths clinging to the gnarled tree trunks like veins of cobweb that had fused with snowflakes. Mist wafted around their feet and on the other side of the frozen pond was a strange-looking lizard the size of a small alligator. It had blunt, frog-like face that seemed strangely depressed. It looked quite harmless, even ignoring the two rhino-like horns emerging from the middle of its domed forehead. It stared at the time travelers for a moment and then turned and shuffled off into the cobwebs and snow.

‘We’ve arrived during winter, that’s all,’ said the Doctor cheerfully. ‘This looks like the Second Kingdom of Aquatica, known to the locals as Phyllosia.’

‘Land of the Phyllos-tines?’ punned Mel.

The Doctor chuckled. ‘Quite the opposite, Mel. This particular breed are probably the most enlightened on the planet – intelligent, resourceful, cunning but above all kind. They believe it’s the duty of the strong to protect the weak, a philosophy countless other civilizations could do well to learn from. Including your own, Miss Bush.’

They made their way through the forest of what the Doctor called Palumar trees, inhaling the spicy scent of the nearby Lumid Sea, as the Doctor explained that Aquatica was split up into three distinct but inter-connected kingdoms according to the dominant life-forms; the beautiful wraith-like Phyllosians, the ugly snake-haired Medusians and the blue-furred apelike Mattermonks who had nearly gone to war but now lived in peaceful co-existence.

The two travelers had emerged from the forest onto one of several snow-covered fields surrounding a small town of white stone-walled houses and wide tree-lined avenues laid out like spokes in a wheel. Slender bridges linked the taller buildings, and even as they drew closer the Doctor and Mel could make out the shapes of the inhabitants: tall, silver-haired beings with glowing blue eyes and intricately-patterned purple robes. Each one glowed slightly, as if bathed in perpetual glow from the planet’s twin moons.

‘How do you do?’ called the Doctor as they entered the town. ‘I was wondering if you could direct me to the residence of the Master of this Kingdom? We’re old friends and I thought he might—’

Before the Phyllosian could telepathically respond, a wailing siren filled the streets. Holographic screens unfolded in the air at regular intervals on the walls of buildings, showing symbols and logos Mel guessed correctly signified a news flash. A blue-furred, skeletal-looking monkey creature was curled up in a throne, reading from a scroll.

This is a planet-wide emergency bulletin,’ the chimpanzee grunted over hidden loudspeakers. ‘An unknown space fleet boasting two distinctive technologies is closing in on Aquatica at battle speed.’ The image changed to show a lurid green horizon as dozens of vast, spherical ships dropped into view. ‘All civilian inhabitants are advised to retreat to places of safety until further information is available…

The Phyllosians began to glide gracefully to their shelters and in moments the Doctor and Mel were alone in the middle of the street. Up above, dark shapes were now visible in the sky as the alien invaders closed in. ‘Come on,’ shouted the Doctor, and bolted for what looked like a medium-sized chapel at the far end of the main road.

Within the chapel was a sophisticated and pleasant-seeming control centre of padded cushions, illuminated strategy desks and transparent wall maps. Phyllosians were moving back and forth, but one of them – a male taller and with grander robes than the others – stood addressing a control console. ‘Unknown vessels,’ he declared, ‘please respond.’

‘It seems I arrived just in time, eh, Phyllos?’ grinned the Doctor as they entered.

The glowing figure glanced at the Doctor, then nodded slowly. ‘Your aura identifies you clearly, my Time Lord friend. It seems Aquatica may be under attack.’ He returned to the console. ‘Unknown vessels, this is Kingdom Phyllosia speaking on behalf of all races here. We inhabitants of Aquatica are peaceful and pose no threat… do you wish to land?’

Another hologram formed, showing a truly bizarre-looking creature. It was covered in shiny pale blue scales and had the short clawed forelimbs of some kind of dinosaur, while its tusked big-eared head resembled that of an elephant but with the trunk replaced by a hooked beak like a bird of prey. Its eyes were deep-blue compound discs from some insect, while the lower half of its body was more like a kangaroo without a tail, even down to its wrinkled pouch.

Stand by for an announcement from the Supreme Lizard, Lord Haxtl himself!’ it announced arrogantly. ‘For it is he and he alone who shall spell out your fate!

The picture changed to a slightly more sensibly-shaped being, a giant blue-scaled creature like a dinosaur with ill-proportioned limbs from its alligator-like body and its goanna-like head peered down at them with haughty disdain.

I am War Commander of the Most Noble Saurian Grovane Alliance,’ it declared grandly. ‘We are the lords of this galaxy, masters of the cosmic rays we now intend to turn upon your world. Our war effort requires the minerals and precious metals that comprise your planet’s inner core as fuel – for reasons of efficiency and speed, the destruction of Aquatica is unavoidable.

‘Supreme Lizard,’ the Doctor began, ‘Aquatica is a neutral world…’

There is no such thing as neutrality!’ snapped Haxtl. ‘War is a path, and we do not broker peace with anyone we are certain to destroy! Prepare to activate the cosmic rays! All on the world below make peace with whatever superstitions give you comfort – for you will not be mourned, nor even your sacrifice remembered. Cease transmission!

The hologram flickered, faded and vanished.

‘How much time we got?’ asked Mel.

‘Left to live?’ asked the Doctor grimly. ‘More a question ‘of how little’! Phyllos, what sort of planetary defenses does Aquatica have to call upon?’

The being shook his head of long mercury-coloured hair. ‘Nothing that can defeat cosmic ray bombardment, and certainly not enough armaments to defend against a fleet of that size.’

The Doctor growled in annoyance. ‘There has to be a way to deflect the invaders… of course! The Medusians! Their magnetic fields can be reversed, repelling the entire fleet out of orbit before they can fire! Are you in contact with Medusia?’

‘Of course, but even so there is no way to develop the repulsion pattern within the time remaining! It would require an overlapping pattern of five hexagons of Medusian forces, and there is not sufficient time to organize it, let alone use it!’ Phyllos waved a hand to a strategy display showing the pattern required.

‘For you, perhaps not,’ Mel pointed out. ‘But we’ve got a time machine!’

‘Doctor, you would be best advised to flee Aquatica while you can with all due urgency,’ Phyllos insisted. ‘There is no sense in dying with us.’

‘No, Mel and I are staying,’ replied the Doctor as he jogged for the exit of the chapel. ‘We can be in Medusia in moments and telling those snake-haired trouble makers how to stop this!’

‘That cannot be achieved in time! Leave while you can – anything else is suicide!’

Mel caught herself thinking that since the Doctor was already dead, that wasn’t much of a threat. Except he wasn’t dead, was he? He’d regenerated – or had he? Feeling strangely detached from events, she automatically ran after the Doctor out into the cold daylight.

She pursued him across the fields and back to the wooded swamp where the TARDIS was waiting for them, trying to keep her mind clear. The sky overhead was filled with one of the vast spherical steel ships, and square hatches across the hull were sliding back to reveal antennae-like devices that began to emerge.

‘I suppose we can’t go back in time?’ asked Mel as they scrambled back into the time machine.

‘Not a viable course of action,’ the Doctor replied, activating the central console. ‘We’re already on Aquatica, we’re already part of events. We have to sort this out in the time available.’ The central column began to rise and fall, the Time Lord’s expression showing fierce concentration. ‘There has to be a way out of this. Something obvious. I’ll think of it in a minute.’

‘Do we have a minute to spare?’ asked Mel as the TARDIS shuddered to a halt.

‘It’s too late to change our minds. We just have to take our chances,’ the Doctor replied and ran out of the doors.

The TARDIS was now located in the middle of what seemed to a marble-walled palace with thick carpets, tapestries and sculptures. There was a crowd of creatures shuffling around in an undignified panic; all of them bloated and green humanoids with single eyes in their flabby faces and instead of hair coiling, hissing snakes. Some of them were staring at the newly-arrived blue box, as if in recognition while the rest continued flapping and howling.

‘All of you! Listen to me!’ the Doctor bellowed authoritatively. ‘We don’t have much time, so you have to organize your magnetic battalions into position right now! Five overlapping hexagons on a reversed magnetic polarity…’

The Medusians looked on in blank horror. ‘You’re mad! There’s no way we can achieve that in fifteen standard units!’ shouted one of them. ‘You’re out of your mind!’

‘A TARDIS!’ cried another of the creatures, fondling the police box. ‘If you are the Doctor returned, you can get us all off the planet while there is still time!’

‘Yes, there’s no sense risking our lives,’ agreed another. ‘Please, save us!’

‘There’s nothing you can do in the time,’ the first Medusian protested.

‘Stop wasting time bleating!’ Mel shouted. ‘We have to stop the invaders!’

‘If we stay here, we’ll die!’ wailed the horrified Medusians. ‘It’s not too late, not even now…’

The Doctor forced his way through the panicking monsters, trying to do something but Mel knew this argument had cost them what little time was left and it was all futile. Yet, she didn’t feel afraid. From the moment she’d woken up in her bedroom with the old Doctor, everything had felt dream-like as if she was a stranger in her own body. Was this all just a dream? A hallucination she was waiting to wake up from as the clock ticked down?

There was a thunderous crackle from above the palace, and a burning light flooded through the pillars and arcades, dazzling and blinding everyone. The Medusians were shrieking, but Mel couldn’t see them any more. She felt like she was hardening, turning to glass which cracked and began to crumble away in the searing crackling dazzle.

Mel suffered the unbearable sensation of being torn apart – but only for a fraction of a second.

***

Mel opened her eyes and in short order realized she was lying face-down on a couch in the corner of a marble-pillared, ornamental garden. There was another couch upon which was slumped a Medusian, clearly in a drunken stupor and probably supposed to be guarding the gates that lead out of the palace. It was a warm early evening, and birds were singing.

She sat up, feeling like she’d slept for hours and lost all sense of time.

‘Ah, there you are Mel!’ The Doctor emerged from a dusky passage and bounded down a flight of steps into the garden. ‘Waiting for the moons to rise? There’s more than that to see once the sun sets – you won’t get a better view of Olopth or Velusia anywhere else in this galactic super-cluster, mark my words…’

‘How… how long have we been here?’ asked Mel uncertainly.

‘Long enough for me to finally convince those dunderhead Medusians that they’ll never understand the TARDIS or how it works. Trust our luck to arrive in the middle of Medusia for a second time!’ He checked his pocket watch from his glittering waistcoat. ‘But to answer your original question, about ten hours or so?’

There seemed to be an ominous roaring inside her head, and suddenly Mel’s memory seemed to clear. ‘What about the invasion?’

The Doctor arched an eyebrow. ‘And what invasion would that be?’

‘Aquatica’s under attack by two alien fleets, the Saurians and the Garvanes – they’re going to destroy the planet unless we use the Medusians to magnetically repel them into space!’

The Doctor was quiet for a moment. ‘Well, that sounds a bit too specific for you to have dreamed it up. How do you know that’s about to happen?’

‘We can discuss it later,’ Mel protested, steadying herself on the couch. ‘We can’t waste any time. The Medusians have to be set up in five overlapping hexagons…’

Briskly, the Doctor helped her up and they hurried into the depths of the palace. The TARDIS was sitting where Mel expected it to be, surrounded by a gaggle of Medusians hissing and patting the blue box. ‘Stop fondling my time machine, you snake-haired roustabouts!’ the Time Lord bellowed. ‘I have it on good authority an alien war fleet is approaching Aquatica – probably sneaking around your main sun, Kzul, for a surprise attack!’

The leader of the Medusians was unimpressed. ‘What authority?’

The Doctor nodded to his companion. ‘Her – and I trust Mel with my life.’

The Medusian shuffled over to an ornamental marble console and adjusted some gilt-framed controls. Instantly, a holographic sphere expanded into view over their heads. It showed a glowing red-orange circle and a bright green circle nearby. A tiny cloud of blue dots was just visible on the other side of the orange disc.

‘Indeed,’ rasped the alien leader. ‘They will be here within the hour.’

‘Plenty of time to organize a defense,’ said the Doctor, clapping his hands in a business-like fashion. ‘Start organizing your defense hoards into overlapping equilateral hexagons, like five pips on a die and then we can work out the frequency of magnetic power to generate…’

Mel watched on, feeling her grip on reality slip as everything went smoothly in the exact opposite way to how it had occurred before. She forced herself to focus as the Medusians went about their business and finally the alien fleet approached Aquatica and made contact.

Instead of the strange elephant-kangaroo-lizard creatures, the messenger this time was a tall humanoid dressed a loose uniform of what seemed to be dull shiny threads, and a metal helmet framed his scowling, hairless face like some steel 1920s woman’s hairdo. He looked powerful and intimidating nonetheless as he growled, ‘Peoples of Aquatica, we are the Imperial Forces of the Garvane-Saurian alliance! Our leader, the Great Rodak, will now speak.

‘That’s not the same,’ mumbled Mel.

Another one of the humanoids appeared. This one was older and a peacock-feather plume rose up from the top of his helmet. ‘On behalf of the great computerized god Shran, our forces require the minerals and precious metals of your accursed planet’s inner core as fuel for our war effort. Our god Shran will use the Saurian cosmic rays upon your treacherous world…

‘Garvanes and Saurians,’ barked the Medusian Leader. ‘You must immediately abandon this attack and surrender to Aquatican Unification Forces – and non-compliance of this command will result in the immediate desolation of your battle fleet!’

The Garvane leader let out a booming, mocking laugh. ‘We surrender to no-one!

The Medusian’s Cyclops-eye swiveled to look to the Doctor who nodded.

‘Then accept the consequences of your decision. Medusians – strike now!’

Mel saw Rodak open his mouth to speak, then was suddenly flung backwards and around as if he was spinning inside a tumble dryer. Other voices began to screen and a metallic voice began to grate, ‘Malfunction! Malfunction! All systems! Total malfunction!’ The Garvane leader screamed as the image broke up into wild zigzags and then turned to a view of the fleet of spherical ships in space. The alien ships were twisting and buckling like tinfoil being crushed by gigantic invisible fists. Their hulls were silently snapping apart, crashing into each other and coming apart, cracking into fragments. The image flared white again and the hologram faded away.

The Doctor released a deep sigh. ‘Seems their cosmic ray weaponry was too unstable to cope with that sort of buffeting. In laymen’s terms, they blew themselves up! It should provide some spectacular firework displays for the next week or so…’

The Medusian leader wobbled over. ‘You have saved us all, Doctor.’

‘Oh, not I, not I,’ said the Doctor theatrically. ‘It was Melanie Bush here who saved the day by both warning us of the threat and providing the solution.’

The snake-haired alien blinked its eye in confusion. ‘But how did you know?’

‘I was rather wondering that myself,’ the Doctor agreed.

Mel took a deep breath. ‘Doctor – there’s something I need to talk to you about…’

***

It was later, much later, inside the TARDIS. ‘Well, there are only two possibilities, aren’t there, Mel?’ the Doctor said at last. ‘Either you’re suffering some delusional, psychotic episode or you are shifting through different dimensions. And you certainly don’t seem to be acting insane.’ He frowned. ‘Unless I’m the delusion, in which case I’m rather biased…’

‘But what could have caused it?’ asked Mel. ‘The quantum flux?’

‘It’s possible. If the TARDIS was malfunctioning, none of its force field prisms would be in place, the systems designed to prevent this sort of thing happening. You were knocked out of your own, straightforward, linear, one-day-after-another existence and into a sort of… temporal void. Like a sort of cosmic pinball table, with you bouncing off parallels to your own universe.’

‘How do we stop it?’ asked Mel, practical as ever.

‘Oh, I’ve got plenty of ideas, but none of them would work. In theory, the TARDIS of this reality should have sent you right back where you came from – so it means that this parallel auto-transference is being caused on your side of the looking glass. There’s nothing in this universe that can be done to change it.’

‘So I’m stuck here?’ Mel asked.

The Doctor nodded. ‘In the place of my own Mel – wherever she’s got to.’

The redhead sighed. ‘Everything feels so wrong. And to think an hour ago I’d have jumped at the chance to see you again. Is there no one that could help?’

The Time Lord crossed to the console. ‘Oh, quite a few experts and scientists I could think of whose advice should be sought,’ he said wearily as the time rotor stopped its steady rise and fall and there was a soft jolt as the time machine came to rest.

‘Are we going to see one of them?’

‘I doubt that.’

‘Then where are you landing the TARDIS?’ Mel demanded.

‘How should I know?’

‘You’re setting the controls!’

The Time Lord looked about to argue, then stopped. ‘Oh, yes, of course.’ The Doctor scratched his ear. ‘You see, Mel, in this reality we defeated the Rani and stopped her completing the Time Manipulator. Unfortunately, while we survived the crash-landing, the TARDIS wasn’t so lucky. Her entire navigational guidance systems are permanently disordered; the old girl is completely un-steerable. I can’t even find a way back to Gallifrey to affect any kind of repairs. I’m afraid the chances of us finding a specialist in crossing planar thresholds is rather remote.’

‘Then where are we?’

The Doctor shrugged and switched on the scanner. ‘Let’s find out, shall we?’

The viewer showed a dark, storm-lashed concrete walkway that made Mel feel cold just looking at it. It seemed to be a never-ending pathway stretching across an ocean, and there seemed to be no buildings, just arches and other walkways branching across the turbulent, crashing waves. Even though she’d never seen the landscape before, it was clearly in bad shape – there was rubble everywhere, some of the arches had collapsed and fires seemed to be burning despite the driving rain and foaming ocean spray.

‘Looks like a disaster area,’ Mel breathed.

The Doctor joined her to look at the scanner. ‘Yes… but no bodies, no corpses.’

‘Maybe they got out of danger in time?’

‘Judging by the destruction, it looks like a surprise attack. Probably few survivors.’

‘Then where are the bodies?’

‘I believe I asked the exact same question,’ the Doctor agreed. ‘Unless the attackers have some kind of need for carrion…’

‘We don’t actually know that there were even people out there to be killed in the first place,’ Mel reminded him.

The Doctor made a distracted noise, then flipped the door control and strode outside. Mel followed automatically, even as the wind and rain whipped violently at them as they stepped from the TARDIS. ‘I think I’ve been here before,’ the Doctor declared over the thunderclaps. ‘This is Kandalinga, a water planet in a binary star system…’

‘Was it nicer the last time you visited?’ asked Mel, by now nearly drenched.

‘Immeasurably!’ the Doctor yelled back. ‘There’s been some kind of global battle since then – and it seems the enemy are entrenched!’ He pointed in the opposite direction. ‘Look!’

Vicious flashes of forked lightning vividly illuminated the walkway to behind them. Not too far away was some kind of super-junction between nine other paths, but the point where they met was swallowed up by a silvery metal structure that seemed to have swallowed up the original structures and buildings. The metal shape showed no sign of damage.

‘Someone’s been busy conquering this planet. And I think I know who!’

The sky was split by another flash of lightning and saw a squad of tall, nigh-on identical figures in metal helmets and metal-mesh clothing. For a moment, Mel thought it was another Garvane, but these soldiers looked almost like Roman Centurions with red capes and short kilts. Mel could smell something like engine oil blowing on the cold, wet wind.

‘Who are they?’

‘Natives of Mechanistria, the rulers of the planet Korad where all organic matter has been used up and purged. That world is just an inhospitable metal ball and the people there survived by implanting their brains into machine bodies. Now they’re on Kandalinga, they’re turning everything into cyborgs like themselves – even the buildings!’

Now Mel could see the soldiers were escorting between them a group of green, scaled aliens of various sizes and – clearly adults and children, all with gills and hair-like feelers. Some were barely able to walk, being helped along by their fellows. One child tripped and stumbled into the back of a soldier who slammed the green alien head-first into the rubble. The soldier turned to one of the prisoners and declared, ‘Carry that carcass into the factory.’

‘We’ve got to do something!’ Mel insisted as the fish-man picked up the body of the dead child and did as it was ordered. ‘No one can possibly deserve this!’

‘Quite right,’ agreed the Doctor, striding across the rubble as the wind blew heavy drops of cold rain across his colourful coat. ‘Now, what’s the meaning of this?’ he bellowed. ‘What right have you mechanized morons to destroy another’s civilization?’

‘Prime Law One,’ replied the Mechanistrian without hesitation, seemingly unsurprised by the Doctor or his question. ‘Anything we cannot use to our advantage will and must be reduced to its atoms. The natives do not stand a chance. They are doomed to fall to us. It ends here.’

‘That’s obscene!’ Mel cried.

The Mechanistrian stood there, the rain dripping from his silver uniform. ‘You are merely animals, flesh to fuel our Grukkers.’ He raised his hand weapon. ‘Alive or dead, it means naught to us.’

‘No!’ yelled one of the fish-people, horrified, only for the Korad soldier behind to club the protestor to the ground with a savage, possibly-lethal blow.

The sudden silence was filled by the eerie howl of wind, as though the damned spirit of the fish-person was wailing at the unfairness of it all.

Mel’s attention was brought back to the Mechanistrian before them as two flashes of light pinged from the soldier’s hand-weapon. Another thunderclap, but this one was unnatural and Mel was amazed to sense her entire body glow white with heat. There wasn’t even time for her to scream, and blackness descended over her like a curtain…

***

After what seemed to be an age, Mel opened her eyes again. She was impossibly alive and unharmed once more. ‘I have to be dreaming,’ she groaned to herself and concentrated on focusing on her new surroundings.

She was dressed in a heavy fur coat and lying in the corner of what seemed to be a period Viking longboat. There were seven oars on each side and single sail, and the figurehead at the front of the boat seemed to a reptile with two curving horns. Most of the crew were burly-looking men in thick tunics and domed Norman-style helmets.

As she looked blearily around, Mel spotted the Doctor, wearing his blue cloak, by the mast talking to a blonde-haired woman also in a blue cloak and a heavy-set bearded figure whose furry hat made Mel think he might be a Mongol warrior, or perhaps Russian. The sudden acclimatization to this new reality meant her famous memory was slightly worse

‘Lay on those oars, men!’ the Russian-Mongol leader yelled. ‘Prepare to beach!’

‘Tell me, do you have any idea where we are?’ the Doctor asked, nodding through the thick sea fog to a dim island shape nearby. ‘Are you familiar with these waters?’

‘No, as a matter of fact,’ replied the leader with a cruel sneer. ‘But the ravens make for that island and that’s good enough for me. We’ll let Finnodo’s band take all the risks.’

‘That’s hardly likely to help anyone,’ the Doctor protested, and turned and strode confidently along the short desk towards Mel. ‘Honestly, Melanie! To think you can just doze off with all this going on? We’ve barely been at sea for three hours…’

Her heart sank as she realized that she had no idea what was going on – once again. Mel sat up and looked around. ‘What about the TARDIS?’ she asked cautiously. ‘I don’t understand. I don’t know what’s happening…’

‘Your elephantine memory failing you, Mel?’ asked the Doctor, surprised. ‘This is a day of miracles. Don’t worry, I’m sure the old girl is quite safe. We’re the ones in the dark lands, searching for an eyeless horror with a one hundred per cent kill rate.’

‘Why?’ asked Mel, looking around the sinister fog that pressed in from all sides. She felt a stab of panic yet at the same time she wasn’t surprised.

‘It seemed rude not to accept such a courteous invitation from those two tribal leaders – especially as to refuse would have given them a reason to disembowel us both.’ The Doctor shot a disapproving look at the rest of the ship’s crew. ‘They were caught in your average battle over territory when a mythical monster from ancient legend came ashore and slaughtered both sides. Thanks to some centuries’ old blood promise, they’re duty-bound to abandon the fight and hunt down this thing with all due speed.’

‘Do you have any idea what it is?’ asked Mel as the ship drew closer to the shore.

‘Not sure, but it’s been on Earth long enough to enter popular mythology – and it’s certainly powerful enough to massacre the strongest warriors of this period without mercy. We are not dealing with stranded and misunderstood non-terrestrial this time.’ The Doctor sighed. ‘On top of everything else, both sides are trying to sell each other out, use them as a Judas Goat. They don’t seem to have noticed we’re chasing ravens to find this creature.’

‘They haven’t?’ asked Mel, still finding this more dreamlike than the last environment.

‘They’re carrion birds, Mel! They’re following this monster to chew its leftovers and we’re on a course to provide more table-scraps!’ He shook his head. ‘We might stand a chance if we were actually working together…’

Mel sighed. This reality was only slightly better than the one she’d just left, yet already she was beginning to remember the carnage of the battlefield and the arguments between the Doctor and the chieftains – as if there was residue of the Mel she’d replaced in this existence. She regarded the Doctor, still un-regenerated, and wondered what else had changed.

‘Doctor – there’s something I need to talk to you about…’

‘Not now, Mel. We have a slayer to slay!’

The longboat finally touched the rocky shore of the mist-shrouded island. There seemed to be no grass, but a few gnarled and leafless trees. The rocks were warped into strange organic lumps, moulded and twisted as if they’d been partially-dissolved and reshaped by some demented sculptor. It was a strange and sinister landscape, and the stench of rotting meat made Mel gag.

The two tribes jumped ashore, as the mist seemed to close in. By the time the Doctor and Mel had reached the solid ground, they could barely see the longboat behind them or the hillocks ahead. The leader barked, ‘Fan out and comb the island! Each man keep the man next to him in sight! And tighten up those ranks!’

The Doctor and Mel followed the blonde woman and the Russian-Mongol figure. ‘So,’ Mel whispered to her companion, ‘what’s the best case scenario?’

‘We don’t die, the Lady Alwin over there marries Chieftain Lodbrok and brings ever lasting peace, while we discover this monster has become a strict vegetarian and dies of eating some poisonous fungi while making a nice winter salad.’

‘That doesn’t sound very likely.’

‘No, I’m afraid it doesn’t.’

In the fog, noise carried far. They could hear some of the soldiers making lewd jokes or reprimanding each other. One protested he couldn’t keep up because there was some strange outcrop blocking his way – and then that warrior let out a horrible scream. Even as the party realized what was happened, three other sailors screamed out and one by one went silent.

‘It’s picking us off one!’ shouted the Doctor. ‘Into the clearing quickly!’

The others hurried to obey as they stepped into a rough oblong gap between the deformed monoliths. A heap of deadwood that had once been a mighty tree filled most of the space. The Doctor delved into his pocket, took out a cigarette lighter and started to ignite some of the branches. ‘Hopefully some fire should keep it at bay,’ he said.

‘If it fears the flames, we’ll destroy the beast with fire and steel,’ shouted Lodbrok.

‘You can’t be serious!’ Mel protested. ‘This is it’s home territory, it’s already killed four of your men and even if we do scare it, it might just swim back to the mainland…’

‘Out of the way, red-curl!’ snapped Lodbork. ‘Can’t you see the blood lust is upon us?’

By now the deadwood was burning brightly, the fog reflecting the orange red glow and making their surroundings looking more infernal and hellish than before. There didn’t seem to be much warmth from the crackling flames and Lodbrok charged off into the mist with his army waving axes, broadswords and improvised flaming torches.

‘Have at you varlet!’ they shouted. ‘Hack it down! Send it back to hell’s dung heap! Don’t let it escape! A gold piece to man who strikes the blood first! We’ve got it cornered!’

The Doctor, Mel and Lady Alwin listened as the shouts became more fearful and desperate.

‘Drive it back! Its hide is like armour! Try to find its weak spot! Cleave its carcass!’

Then the voices, ever-more-distant, began to scream in terror.

‘Look out! The thing has gone mad! We need help! Save yourself, man!’

Lodbrok charged back into view. His hat was missing and blood streamed from a wound on his face. ‘The beast has gone to ground!’ he gasped, shaking with fear. ‘It has carved out a labyrinth beneath our feet like a warren of rabbits!’

‘Where is my brother?’ demanded Alwin.

‘His berserker blood no long runs in his veins,’ Lodbrok said. ‘Your clan has been decimated. I vote we end this folly and cast off now!’

‘Now you’ve got rid of your political rivals and a new wife to boot?’ challenged the Doctor angrily. ‘Just how hard did you try to stop that accursed jabberwock, I wonder?’

‘Long enough,’ retorted Lodbrok with a smile. His former fear vanished.

‘That’s just hideous!’ exclaimed Mel, horrified.

‘If you object so much,’ said Lodbrok, raising his dagger. ‘You can stay here with the demon and your little fire. Or you can come with us back to the southlands – quietly!’

Mel opened her mouth, then looked the Doctor. ‘Staying here is certain death,’ Lady Alwin said. ‘The Doctor’s fire has saved our lives. We owe him passage back to the mainland. And I will keep my promise to join your people.’

‘Thank you, Lady Alwin,’ sighed the Doctor.

More of Lodbrok’s men were returning from the mist. They were all battered by not really hurt; Mel guessed they had made only a token gesture of fighting the monster before running away and letting their allies be slaughtered. Back-lit by the dancing hellish flames, the group made their way back down the shore and onto the longboat once more.

The Doctor, Mel and Alwin were pressed into surface into pushing oars, filling the gaps left by the dead. Mel considered joking that this was at least providing the tubby Time Lord with some exercise, but after the slaughter she didn’t feel up to much merriment. Instead she concentrated on heaving her own oar over and over again, but surprisingly it seemed to be getting harder and harder. The longboat, which had been shifting forward with reasonable speed, now seemed to be dead in the water. She and the other rowers redoubled their efforts, but achieved little.

‘Odin be cursed,’ Lodbrok complained, peering at the tiller at the rear of the boat. ‘Something’s stuck to the tiller blade – we must be dragging some weeds or such…’

Lodbrok let out a scream as a waterspout exploded up in front of him and something leaped out of the water and into the body of the boat itself. It was like a giant mechanical spider with twelve steel legs emerging from its angular grey body. Panels of its head and body were flashing plastic in bright primary colours like blue, yellow and green with red and pink being the prominent on its pointed head and long neck. Long antennae above glowing yellow compound eyes that blazed through the swirling mist. A squid-like mess of black cables ending in green and yellow diodes writhed in its gleaming silver snout and two massive crab-like metal claws on flexible, corrugated cables snapped menacingly towards Lodbrok.

With a metallic clicking rattle, it landed in the middle of the sailors and its huge pincers slashed out, slaughtering two of Lodbrok’s men before they could raise their weapons. Lodbrok shouted orders and, keeping to the rear of the boat, watched as his surviving men charged straight at the monster, wielding their blades.

‘It’s a Kelad!’ spluttered the Doctor, amazed.

‘You know it?’ asked Alwin, her brown eyes wide with fear.

‘Yes, a race of intelligent machines from a planet called Llios – unfortunately they’re not only criminally-insane but some of them are capable of time transportation! I thought they’d all been hunted down but there’s still this one active and murderous!’

Even as the Doctor had spoken, the giant metal insect had butchered its way through the last of the sailors and was advancing on Lodbrok. Its mandibles extended towards his unprotected face as the cowardly warrior drove his sword against the Kelad’s neck – and the blade snapped in two.

‘No, no!’ sobbed Lodbrok, scrabbling to climb over the side of the boat.

One of the pincers close around his own neck – and this time the deathblow succeeded.

The Kelad scuttled up the longboat towards them, its pincers clasped together like a praying mantis and antennae waving wildly.

‘Ladies, I want you both to scream as loudly and shrilly as possible – we might be able to confuse its echo-locators long enough to throw it overboard…’

Not wasting a moment, both Mel and Alwin shrieked at the top of their voices until their throats were burnt roar and they had no breath left to gasp. But it had no effect; the evil-looking creature drew closer, its eyes blazing as bright as twin suns.

‘The fog!’ the Doctor realized, running a hand through his curls. ‘It’s insulating the audio circuits somehow… it’s completely unstoppable now…’

As Mel felt the Kelad’s mouth tendrils reach out to smother them, and its pincers start to press into their unprotected flesh, she realized she wasn’t scared or even surprised. It seemed to her that whenever and wherever she arrived, death was sure to follow.

***

Mel was not entirely surprised to wake up in her room on the TARDIS. She was, however, surprised to see an empty bottle of red wine on the bedside table and a three-quarter-empty glass nearby. It certainly explained the throbbing pain in her forehead.

‘Mel?’ The Doctor’s voice came from behind the bedroom door. ‘Mel, please, let me in. I can say with a great deal of confidence that you can’t stay locked up in there forever, you know.’

Frowning, Mel got out of bed and crossed to the door. ‘What is it?’ she mumbled.

‘Mel, there was nothing you could of done,’ the Doctor insisted as she opened the door. Mel noticed at once that he wasn’t wearing his usual ensemble; instead he was dressed in a green checked overcoat and a pair of vivid red trousers. His hair was darker, almost brown. The Doctor sniffed and frowned. ‘Have you been drinking?’ he asked, amazed.

‘Looks like,’ Mel yawned.

‘Melanie, please,’ he urged her. ‘It was an accident – I’ve told you before, there was no way anyone on Melphis could have got out in time. The population knew the risk of what they were being asked to do. At least Voorvolika was stopped, that’s the main thing.’

Mel stared at him. ‘What about Alwin?’

‘Alwin?’ the Doctor. ‘Why are you worried about her for? That was months ago, and I wouldn’t have thought you would have shed any tears for her after what she did to Lodbrok to steal his great-grandfather’s treasure, and nearly feed us to that Kelad…’

‘Doctor,’ Mel said slowly, ‘there’s something I need to talk to you about…’

‘Oh?’

‘I don’t remember any of that.’

‘What do you mean?’

And so Mel began to explain again what she had been going through. The conversation was so much like the last one it was also comforting.

***

‘…and that’s four parallel universes I’ve been in,’ Mel concluded despondently. ‘At least I’m fairly sure how many there were. I’m worried I’m going to lose count with all these memories and feelings I get from one reality to the other.’

The Doctor sat on the bed, cradling the glass of wine in his hands. ‘Well, it certainly sounds like you’re crossing dimensions instead of going mad. You’ve replaced my Mel. I hope she’s not just died on that longboat. On the other hand, she might have transited into another reality ahead of this one, like a never-ending string of collapsing dominoes…’

‘But how do we stop the cycle?’ Mel protested.

‘I haven’t the faintest idea,’ concluded the Doctor bleakly.

***

Mel followed the Doctor from the TARDIS doorway into its new surroundings. Between her hangover and the disorientation of her new mind, it was a struggle to focus on her true memories before they slipped away. It occurred to her that she’d died four times now, and it might only be a matter of time before she was killed again and ended up in another reality. Could she prevent that from happening or was it inevitable?

The TARDIS had landed on the sand between a dense jungle and an ancient city of rhomboid stone buildings surrounded by a purple-grey outer wall and a triangular city gate. The sun was shining out of the blue sky and Mel winced and covered her eyes.

‘Doctor?’ she called as the Doctor pushed open the city gates.

‘Mmm?’

‘What happened when we met the Rani on Lakertya?’

The Doctor looked confused, then remembered she was from another reality. ‘Oh, well, it was a bit of a bumpy landing. The Rani had an army of genetically-engineered spiders that had made the forests a death trap, and she was trying to create a Time Manipulator.’

‘But we stopped her?’

‘Of course. But the price…’ the Doctor sighed. ‘The price was very high.’

The highly-polished city appeared to be deserted. They had entered a courtyard of long rectangular pools divided by causeways leading between temples of palaces, steps and blocks and stone statues. ‘Fascinating,’ the Doctor said. ‘Some kind of ancient civilization…’

Mel remembered other ones they’d visited. ‘Probably full of booby-traps.’

‘Less of the pessimism, Mel.’

As the Time Lord moved across the causeways, Mel saw one of the flagstones sink beneath his foot and the nearest statue swung round to face him. It was a strange inhuman figure carrying a medieval mace and while the Doctor was quick enough to duck, she wasn’t. The stone mace slammed into her shoulder and sent her toppling into the pool below.

Immediately the water around her began to foam and bubble around Mel, who felt a burning pain in her arms and legs before a spreading numbness. The pools seemed to be full of some kind of acid, and her limbs went slack as it burnt into her. There was a horrible fetid smell, which must have been her flesh dissolving into the acid.

‘Mel!’ shouted the Doctor as she sank into the thrashing, boiling acid.

Mel’s last thought was that she’d lasted far longer in this reality than any other.

***

As before, Mel didn’t remember the actual moment of death – just awoke in a new possibility as if she’d always been there. She was back in her bedroom on the TARDIS, and this time not hungover. There was no wine to hand, but the room was surprisingly untidy.

Mel caught her reflection in the mirror. She looked awful; bloodshot eyes, a gaunt face, her normally-curly hair flat and messy. It looked like she hadn’t eaten properly for weeks, let alone been anywhere a sun shone.

She made her way straight to the TARDIS control room. There she found the Doctor brooding over the controls. He was wearing his patchwork coat, but this one seemed mostly blue and purple than any other colour. The Time Lord didn’t look up as she arrived.

‘Sorry, Doc,’ said Mel cautiously. ‘Overslept.’

The Doctor turned and looked at her, his eyes burning with cold rage. ‘I suppose as obscenities go, sleeping in is generally considered a minor crime.’

‘Obscenities?’ repeated Mel with a baffled smile.

‘No rest for the wicked, Melanie Bush. Evil rarely sleeps.’

‘Evil? What do you mean?’

‘You, of course.’

Mel felt suddenly cold and brittle. He was treating her like she was some terrible threat, a soulless destroyer. ‘Wh-what do you…?’ she stammered, at a loss for words.

‘What did you want, Melanie Bush?’ he asked. ‘I assume there is some reason you’re here.’

Mel swallowed her anxiety. ‘Just what is it that I’m supposed to have done?’ she demanded.

The Doctor’s face betrayed a brief flicker of surprise – the Mel of this universe was clearly supposed to be fully-aware of her crimes. ‘Thanks to you, Melanie Bush, every smiling bird, singing bird, every tree and flower and person and city is doomed.’ His voice was a cold monotone, as if the life had been sucked out of him. ‘The Rani will rewrite everything until there’s nothing left. Congratulations. Cry if you like. While there are still tears left to shed.’

‘Doctor…’

‘You helped the Rani complete her Time Manipulator, threatening everything I fight to defend. To stop that I had to destroy an innocent planet and everyone on it – there was no other way, and that was entirely because of you. I should never have taken you with me. You disgust me.’

Mel felt like a deer in headlights, her eyes wide with fear. ‘You don’t mean that…’

‘Don’t I? You are nothing to me. Not any more.’

‘I… I’m sorry… Please.’

The Doctor let out a bitter laugh. ‘As if I could forgive you. As if I could accept an apology from a cowardly monster like you. I can’t let you leave the TARDIS – you’re too dangerous to allow anywhere else. I would have put you out of my misery by now, but that’d be too easy. Do my words hurt you? Good. You deserve the pain.’

Mel fell silent. Yes, she had helped the Rani – but under duress, in the hope she would be able to sabotage the evil Time Lady’s scheme from within. Had she, in this reality, actually chosen to help the Rani impose order on the chaotic universe, despite the cost? It was ludicrous to think the Doctor would treat her like this if she’d been working in fear of her life. The more she thought about it, the more likely it seemed that this Mel had decided that at least completing the Rani’s Time Manipulator would be better than ending the experiment and ensuring all those innocent people who had perished die for nothing. But just what could have driven her to that point?

The sound of the outer door opening brought her back to the present. The Doctor was stalking out of the TARDIS, clearly not wanting her to accompany him.

‘Don’t beg for more pity,’ he called over his shoulder. ‘If the Time Lords had their way, you’d have been burnt away from your rotten core outwards until you never existed in the first place.’

As the doors shut behind him, Mel felt chilled to the bone.

Still feeling shocked, she reached out and turned the scanner on. The square screen showed the TARDIS had landed by the shore of a wide purple lake of bubbling, steaming liquid. There cloud-scudded blue sky contrasted with the golden dunes and rocky mesas. Outside, the Doctor was talking to a white-haired man with a pointy beard, dressed in a vermillion cloak and brown robes. The old man seemed cheerful, but his good humor faded rapidly as he and the Doctor exchanged words, before turning and hurrying off towards a collection of domed buildings and towers.

Obviously the old man was some kind of authority figure who needed the Doctor’s help for something, but Mel couldn’t guess much else. More than anything, she wanted to know why she’d done that – what single event could have made her knowingly betray the Doctor and all of creation. Could this version of her be so selfish and cowardly? Or, more disturbingly, could she herself do the same thing in different circumstances? Mel wanted to doubt it, tell herself she was wasting time thinking about personality traits she or the others would have noticed earlier.

The only thing she could do was try and make amends and prove herself to this other Doctor.

Mel opened the doors and stepped from the TARDIS. Over the hill was a strange silvery glow, getting stronger and then fading like a heart beating. It was in the opposite direction to the one the Doctor and the old man had taken and, on impulse, Mel set off up the slope.

She reached the top to find a kind of alien version of Stonehenge waiting for her. There were monoliths and slabs and arches, but these all seemed to be natural formations instead of standing stones erected for some ancient ceremony. There was no mistaking this ring for people or monsters who had been turned to stone, but still there was something strange happening – the pulsing glow was coming from the heart of the circle. There was a small knot of people standing nearby, their faces blank and movements dull as though they’d been hypnotized by the gentle pulsing light. Within the stones were a dozen silvery humanoid shapes, featureless slender dolls that were the source of the silvery light.

Mel’s incredibly memory allowed her to recall one of the Doctor’s stories about how he had fought aliens from the planet Valiark attempting to colonize the Earth via stone circles. They resembled hideous church gargoyles but assumed their doll-like forms to help hypnotize their prey. She took care to avoid looking at the beautiful shapes, knowing she too could fall under their spell.

As they continued the manifest, the Valiark remained within the stone circle – to protect themselves they had surrounded themselves with a force-field generated by their own bodies. It meant nothing could reach them inside the ring of stones, but if they left that protection they would be so weakened a well-aimed rock would overwhelm them. The last time he had encountered them in Mel’s existence, he had tricked the Valiark into doing just that. Would the Valiark be fooled this time? Had they been fooled before in this reality?

She was dragged backwards, both physically and out of her thoughts, as a wrinkled hand grabbed her skinny forearm with surprising strength. She was drawn back behind a rocky outcrop by the white-haired old man the Doctor had spoken too earlier. ‘What are you doing here?’ demanded the old man abruptly.

As there was no real way to explain herself, Mel didn’t bother.

‘I had wondered if the Doctor had brought a new companion, but I hardly expected it to be you!’ the old man exclaimed, clearly knowing of the other Mel’s actions on Lakertya and like the Doctor his eyes betrayed both anger and embarrassment. ‘You shouldn’t be on this planet – it’s highly-inappropriate! A Time Lord like myself should report you to all twenty-four of the High Council!’

‘Look, those things are the Valiark, aren’t they?’ she protested. ‘The Doctor said only a few of them are needed to take over a whole planet – they can cause volcanoes, earthquakes, drive whole populations to wage war, kill millions of innocent people…’

‘That is why I summoned the Doctor to Kybos!’ the old man glared. ‘I am Vama and this world of Kyros, this whole solar system of Lagon 2, is under my protection!’

‘You’re not protecting any of that lot up there! If you’re not going to stop them, I am!’

‘You think for one minute we can forget your crimes so easily?’ Vama snapped. ‘The Doctor is working with my people and there is a good chance you will ruin everything, just as you did so before – I will not let you ruin my world!’

‘Then you’ll let the Valiark do it for you?’ jeered Mel, wrenching her arm free and striding straight towards the stone circle and the band of brainwashed Kyrosians.

The silver glow was burning brighter and brighter, silhouetting the stones and the hypnotized natives in front of them. The dazzling light seemed to be getting larger and wider, throbbing and blurring out everything, making her eyes water and her head spin. Behind her, she could still hear Vama shouting. ‘Is nothing beneath you?’ he cried, more distraught than angry. ‘All you can achieve now is your own death!’

And, within a few minutes, she had.

***

Mel wasn’t sure if she was dreaming or having a nightmare, but as she entered this new possibility she decided there was no point trying to do anything – she doubted remaining in her bedroom would stop her dying in a few hours, and the vicious cycle would continue. Knowing what was going to happen to her made her almost want to die, properly and forever. Surely anything would be better than this endless merry-go-round of realities.

Exhausted and confused, Mel opened her eyes to find herself lying on a bed in the TARDIS observation room. It was a seemingly-normal room deep within the time machine, but some of its walls were thick transparent plastic, offering a panoramic view outside the hull of the TARDIS. It was normally bare apart from a few couches, but it seemed to have been turned into a combined bedroom and gymnasium. Exercise equipment was neatly dotted around, racks of clothes and mirrors, bookshelves, a television, a chest full of puzzles, jigsaws and games.

Through the wall-port she could see rolling countryside, with vineyards surrounding a bustling city of farmers and workers, smiling and enjoying the sunshine. Struck by a desire to see it for herself, Mel got to her feet and crossed to the door.

It was locked – and from the outside.

‘Doctor?’ she called, wondering if this parallel version hated her as much as the last.

‘Mel?’ The Doctor’s voice came over a communications channel. There was none of the anger and disgust, but he sounded old and weary. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘The door’s locked.’

‘Of course it’s locked. You know you can’t come out.’

‘Oh no, don’t tell me I’m a prisoner again,’ Mel groaned.

‘Prisoner?’ The Doctor was puzzled. ‘I suppose so, but I thought we both agreed it was necessary quarantine. You’re only safe as long as you stay in the TARDIS, and I’ve made sure the observation room is the safest part of the TARDIS. At least you’ve got a good view…’

‘Quarantine? Am I infected?’

‘No, but everything else is.’

Mel was about to question him further when she caught a glimpse of the world outside the viewport: now it was full of smoke and burning bodies, as the city was crushed beneath molten lava. The fleeing farmers were chased by carrion birds before they all turned to cinders. The ashes vanished in boiling red light.

‘What’s happening out there?’

‘Oh, the Rani’s probably just forced the suns into supernova to harvest some energy.’

‘The Rani?’ Mel repeated, aghast.

‘Yes. The Temporal Empress – the Usurper of History, Matriarch of the New, Engineer of Order at any cost.’ The Doctor’s voice sighed. ‘Temporal anarchy – the slaughter of the old by the new, evolution in its most primal form written across the universe. The Time Lords are obsolete.’

Even as he spoke, she saw the burning holocaust melt away to leave a perfectly-smooth, featureless charcoal-colored plain under a dull mauve sky.

‘There’s nothing else left, Mel. Every world burns and reforms and never existed all at once until the Rani grows bored and looks for something else to reshape.’

Mel felt sick. ‘All those people…’

‘If they’re lucky, they’ll die here just the once and not a dozen hundred thousand times as the Rani cleaves history into a shape she likes. Because otherwise there’s no comfort, no chance their sacrifices will be remembered or that their loved ones were ever real.’

‘Surely someone must be doing something!’ Mel protested.

‘Oh, there are plenty of wise men and mystics across a million different galaxies who sense what’s happening – but what can they do? Their own worlds will be ruined or improved in due course, or maybe they already have been. It’s enough to drive anyone mad if they can grasp the scope of it. Timelines no longer will occur, or should or can or must never happen. Nothing is certain any more, except that sooner or later we’ll all fall to the Rani. The moment she completed the Time Manipulator, she was and would always have been unstoppable. And she will destroy and rebuild all matter until she finds something she’s happy with.’

Mel slumped against the door and slid thoughtlessly to the floor. ‘And that’s why I’m in here.’

‘Yes. Inside the TARDIS, outside of time, the Rani can’t reach you. Oh, she undid the human race right away – they never existed. Step out the TARDIS doors and you won’t either.’ Mel could almost hear the frown in his voice. ‘You know, I thought you’d remember that. Unless perhaps she’s starting to nibble away at your time-stream as well…’

‘So the Rani completed her Time Manipulator this time. No one could stop her. Oh, I can see how this is going to end,’ Mel muttered to himself.

‘What do you mean?’

‘That’s where it all started. The Rani on Lakertya. In fact, for all I know, I might still be there. But you regenerated, you became completely different and we stopped her. Then, one day, the TARDIS got caught in a quantum flux and ever since then, I’ve been stuck in the last hour or so every alternative reality that might have been mine if you hadn’t changed.’

There was a long silence.

Mel was compelled to add, ‘Well, I might have just gone crazy. That’s still an option.’

‘Or the Rani’s temporal revisions have managed to penetrate the TARDIS and you’ve been altered almost beyond recognition by the changes she’s performed to linear causality.’

‘Well, that still needs to explain the half-dozen realities I’ve been in so far.’ Mel sighed. ‘But it’s been getting worse and worse. Every reality the price of stopping the Rani got higher and higher until she actually got away with it and now it’s only a matter of time before we’re finished.’

‘A matter of time,’ repeated the Doctor’s voice. ‘Aptly put, Mel.’

‘The question is – am I crossing universes because of what the Rani’s doing or something else?’

‘It’d be nice to believe the latter. Perhaps if I had regenerated on Lakertya then a new me, a random and unpredictable factor, might have defeated the Rani. As it is, well, cowardice makes a mockery of us all…’

Mel looked up sharply. ‘That’s it. That’s what this is all about – you!’

‘Me?’ the Doctor exclaimed. ‘Yes. If I suppose it is. I’m the one constant factor at variance with your own memory, if your reality diverges because I died on Lakertya…’ There was a pause. ‘Tell me, Mel, do you blame yourself for what happened to me?’

Mel said nothing.

‘Oh, of course I’m sure there was nothing you could have done and it certainly wasn’t your fault. But subconsciously, you might have needed an opportunity to have me back – and in a quantum flux desire is as powerful a force as any other in shaping a timeline.’

‘You mean, that’s what’s causing this cycle?’ asked Mel slowly. ‘Instead of going back to my own universe, I keep finding another one where you’re unchanged?’

‘Yes. If you’ve ceased to occupy a straightforward, linear state of cause and effect, what else would guide you but your own deepest wants? And if you want to return to your own existence, then you have to accept that I won’t be there. My replacement will.’

Mel thought of the increasing fog in her mind, making her original reality more and more like a half-remembered dream. ‘But I want to stay with you,’ she said at last

‘It’s the only way to break this cycle, Melanie Bush! Do you really want to be trapped in a perpetual labyrinthine network of distorted reflections?’ demanded the Doctor brutally. ‘You can’t escape fate without stepping into someone else’s life. Mel, you and I exist together in a handful of potential realities and none of them will last for long.’

‘We keep dying,’ Mel agreed. ‘Or at least just me.’

‘Exactly, Mel,’ the Doctor sighed. ‘Don’t you see? My life, my sixth life at least, has ended. You’re having to move further and further into the dimensions to find a version of me still around – this reality’s already on the verge of destruction. How bad will the next one be? Or the one after that?’

‘But that means I’ll never see you again!’ Mel protested.

‘Nonsense. There’s the other me, my seventh incarnation, to keep you company. It’s still me – surely you’re not superficial enough to judge my appearances!’

‘It’s not the same!’

‘I never said it would be. Nothing lasts forever, and a bit of change does everyone wonders in my experience. Your Doctor is still the same person as I am, with the same concerns and passions – just a slightly different perspective on things, a fresh outlook. He’s me, even though I’m not him. Pity about losing this body. I was sure it would be good for another couple of centuries at least, but a new one will do just as well…’

‘All right. You win.’ Mel ran a hand through her curly red hair. ‘But even if I want to, how could I actually get back?’

‘We just need to end your life in this existence. I’ll lower the shields around the observation room, and all you have to do is walk out the door and the Time Manipulator will wipe you from history – and then it’s up to you to find your own dimension.’

‘I have to commit suicide,’ realized Mel dully.

‘It’s either that or wait to die of old age. Or a nasty gymnasium-related accident. Please, just do it, Mel!’ pleaded the Doctor. ‘True, it means the death of me as I am now – but better to make a difference instead of being carried along like flotsam and debris on the tide. This universe have been rewritten so much even a Time Lord can’t keep track any more…’

‘All right.’ Mel swallowed. ‘I suppose at least this time I got a chance to say goodbye.’

‘Goodbye, Mel,’ the Doctor’s voice replied. ‘See you on the flip-side, as they say…’

Mel pushed open the door to the observation room, to reveal a normal corridor outside. She took a deep breath and stepped through the doorway. As she moved down the corridor, the walls seemed to drift away until they were impossibly distant. She closed her eyes.

‘I don’t want this,’ she chanted under her breath. ‘I want the real world – warts and all.’

***

Mel opened her eyes and heard the insistent droning of the console alarm.

QUANTUM FLUX OVERLOAD
REALIGN COMPENSATOR SYSTEMS
IMMEDIATELY!!


Everything was as it had been right before she’d touched the controls.

She turned and ran to the inner door. ‘Doctor!’ she yelled at the top of her voice.

The Doctor in the straw hat and golfing pullover ran into view, saw the blaring alarms and scrambled past her to the console. He began to adjust almost every control on every panel except for the slide control that was flashing. Finally, the Doctor grabbed his umbrella and used it to jab at a keyboard on the far side of the console while holding down switches with his left foot. The alarm stopped and the screen went blank; both the Doctor and Mel sighed with relief.

‘That was a close-run thing,’ the Doctor said, tugging a handkerchief from his pocket and mopping his brow. ‘The timelines nearly came down like a house of cards!’ He smiled apologetically at Mel. ‘Thank you for letting me take over. You know, I was thinking of heading for Pendor for a while. It’s a lovely spot for a holiday and I can get to work giving the old girl a proper overhaul. After all,’ he added, ‘you can’t learn to pilot a broken TARDIS, can you, Mel?’

‘No,’ Mel replied with a smile, realizing how much she’d missed this Doctor. Technically the same man, yet abruptly becoming so much very different and not just his face. But even this new version need her to look after him, pull him out of trouble and explore the universe with. And this reality at least had a chance to avoid getting them both killed.

But what if they did? Would they die this time, or would she suddenly wake up in yet another parallel universe? Had she actually escaped this trap – or was this just a version close enough for her to mistake it for the genuine article?

Mel took a deep breath.

‘Doctor – there’s something I need to talk to you about…’