by Casey J
ETARHO: ORBITING SATELLITE
I have no name. There is no one else here to refer to me by it even if I had.
I am alone on this sphere of semi-solid mud and dirt. I live on water from condensation overnight and the invertebrate animals that wriggle in the mud. They are acceptable food; a consistency and flavor comparable to crunchy king prawn. I know this, yet I have never eaten crunchy king prawn, yet the raw information and data in my head insists the comparison is accurate. It is not knowledge or wisdom, as I have no memory of acquiring it, of reading it in a book or hearing about it from a friend or even learning first-hand.
I have a wealth of information at my beck and call, but no identity. No history. No clue as to how or why I came to be exiled on this backwater, which I have thoroughly explored since I first awoke. For a reason I cannot determine, I am compelled to measure time in the standard units of the planet Earth and its dominant species – I have never been to Earth or met a human, and the information I possess over them makes them no more or less appealing than any of the other species on that planet. I couldn’t care less.
Sometimes I wonder if the backlog of facts in my consciousness is mere insanity. That there are no worlds beyond this, no other people in the universe, that it is all a dream, the shadows on a cave wall (human ideas, again, it’s a bizarre obsession I must shake). Yet the idea I am deranged is almost comforting. Can one be alone if no one else exists?
For the last twenty years – Earth standard time – I have wandered this soggy rock. The iron shack is the only unnatural, constructed object on the planet. Many a time I have been tempted to let my rage reach the point I would demolish it, but it would remove the only possible shelter on this mudball. I use my frustration as fuel and spent five years painstakingly carving a vast shape across the southern flatlands, a symbol to be seen from space. It will attract attention, either from those who understand its meaning as a plea for assistance, or those curious as to how such a gigantic graffito appeared in the mud.
But no one has come to this part of the cosmos. No one here to notice it or to take action or give me the freedom I am certain is my birthright. Twenty years here, since I awoke. How long before I am discovered? It could be centuries more, perhaps even millennia. How many comet strikes or supernovae will occur before I am rescued?
HESH. ROCINANTE: IN ORBIT OVER ETARHO’S SATELLITE
My father says only stupid people are ever bored, but what would he know? He has the ship to run, or in this case, the ship to fix. He and the others are only going to land because the drives are fluctuating. We need to land the Rocinante, strip the mechanisms down and repair them. I don’t know enough to help them, so I’ll be stuck on the moon with nothing else to do.
And then I see the huge, intricate lines carved on the surface of the moon.
ETARHO: ORBITING SATELLITE
I know of Robinson Crusoe, the fictional castaway. It gives me no comfort.
I would not call myself Robinson Crusoe. For some reason the name “Rory” feels better suited to a man suffering interminable delays and waiting in harsh wilderness, but it has an association of… nobility, it seems that makes me uneasy. For sheer, blind survival with no change or improvement the name “Jack” fits well, but it conjures up the image of a jester trying to distract from his plight with humor.
I feel it fair to say I lost my sense of humor along with my identity twenty years prior.
But I still feel compelled to smile when a ship comes in to land.
HESH. ETARHO: ORBITING SATELLITE
I was born in space. I hate spending time on planets, with all that sky overhead and nothing to stop the atmosphere leaking away into the vacuum. It’s unnerving.
I step out of the hatch, my boots sinking into the mud. Up ahead is the tiny metal box like a miniature habitation dome, and outside it is the man that lives here – the only living being on the planet, according to the Rocinante’s sensors.
He is clad in a filthy, grimy toga of material. His cheeks are sunken in a hollow face with no expression. His eyes are dark pits, and if unhappiness ever took humanoid form than it was this man. Stuck on here, he’s probably gone mad.
As I was the one who wanted excitement, I was sent out to meet the castaway while the others ran the checks. We’ve often picked up strays – animals, visitors, anyone that could help or become a new crew. My father never turns away someone who needs help
‘Peaceful life,’ I greet him, to no reply. ‘Can we help?’
He says nothing. He starts walking through the mud towards me.
‘I am not going to hurt you,’ I say. Even though I have the gun and he is unarmed. ‘It looks as though you aren’t happy here. If wish, you can join us inside for a good meal. Food, yes? Water?’
Just when I am beginning to wonder if my translator implant is broken, the man stops before me. He nods slowly, and his dark eyes soften enough to suggest he’s trying to thank me. Perhaps he cannot speak? A mute?
‘We don’t want to stay here,’ I tell him – I don’t like any planet much, but this one is definitely the least pleasant I’ve been. ‘Once the drive is ready we will leave. You can come with us, if you wish.’
There was no answer, unsurprisingly, but the stranger stumbled closer, clearly eager to get on board the ship.
DYASTER. ROCINANTE: ETARHO’S ORBITING SATELLITE
I look up as Hesh leads the stranger inside. ‘Another stray, boy?’
‘Aye,’ my son tells me. ‘I don’t know long since he has eaten, but he doesn’t talk. He understands what we’re saying.’
Is that right? ‘Have you a name? Can you type it out?’
The stranger says nothing. After a moment, he shakes his head.
‘We’ll just have to give you a name. I had a brother once, named Verne. You can be Verne – until you tell us any different. Hesh, get him a shower and a change of clothes, scout something out in his size and then get Ransar to run a check over him.’
He’s emaciated, malnourished but more than that. Empty.
We never turn away someone who needs help, but I already wish we had not met him.
VERNE. ROCINANTE: LEAVING ETARHO’S ORBIT
In the ancient human tongues, it means to those who are youthful. Young at heart if not in body. As good a name as any for someone with a body older than his mind.
My newfound companions are warm-hearted, unexpectedly gentle yet quite capable of killing without hesitation should there be no alternative. I’m not sure I approve, but then until now I have never been in a situation where I might end another’s life to save my own. Until now there have been no others.
No, these scavengers are not unpleasant company, each one specialized as a member of the crew, but with interchangeable skills such as piloting, computers, basic medical care. There is an expert in such affairs, a doctor – I feel almost compelled to emphasize the indefinite article, as if to remind him of his place yet I have no reason to believe him arrogant or lacking the skills he claims. It is very odd.
These people move from planet to planet, driven by a hunger to keep traveling, keep moving, see the unseen. There is nothing stopping themselves from adopting some new home world and settling down. A desire I cannot help but sympathize; why stay in one place when others are on offer? What is freedom if you never use it?
It is good I am so easily accepted, without any attempts to invade my privacy. Bar the assurance I mean them no harm, and a few understandable questions as to my origins, there has been no tests, just easy affection, a cabin, clean clothes. They ask me to speak only when I am ready, and I intend to once I’m used to using my vocal chords once again. Until then, I’m quite willing to communicate via other methods.
I gaze out the porthole as the only home I’ve truly known drops into the infinite darkness.
Wherever I end up, it cannot be worse than staying there.
DYASTER. ROCINANTE: DEEP SPACE
Once Natoren has finished with the visitor, I made a point of going to see him in the medical unit. He’s tidying the place up; Verne is off in his cabin.
‘How is he, Natoren?’ I ask.
Natoren glances up at me. ‘Malnourished, but nothing an electrolyte stabilizer and vitamin solutions. No obvious wounds or illnesses, but he’s been living rough for most if not all of his life quite probably down on that moon.’
‘We can afford to feed him up,’ Hesh says confidently.
‘Perhaps,’ says Natoren, brooding over the readouts.
‘Any idea where he’s from or how he got there?’ my son asks.
‘A few ideas,’ I reply. ‘There is the possibility someone tried to colonize that planetoid and he’s the last survivor of the colonist. But it begs the question of why anyone would want to live on that mud-ball. And also why there’s no sign of any colony buildings.’
‘Maybe he crashed on the planet?’ Hesh shrugs.
More questions. ‘No wreckage anywhere, unless it all sunk into the mud…’
Natoren clears his throat. ‘I have no idea what lead to our stray ending up there, but I do know where he’s from,’ he says, unsmiling.
‘Go on,’ I prompt.
After an agonizing pause, Natoren declares, ‘He’s a Time Lord, Dyaster.’
‘What?’ I repeat, unable to keep my voice level.
I’ve heard of the Time Lords. Hasn’t everyone? The ancient champions of reality, ensuring no one pollutes history by trying to travel in time. The oldest race in the universe who ended time wars and protected lesser beings…
And Verne was one of them?
Natoren hand over the display clipboard to show me the data. ‘Two hearts, low body temperature, abnormal blood chemistry, larger cranial activity, unusual encephalographic patterns… if he’s a Time Lord then he has been modified to fit the description to a T.’
‘Well, we can take him back home can’t we?’ Hesh asks.
‘We can’t deny him a reunion with his people,’ I agree.
If we are in any position to help this man, of course we should do so, just as we should not have abandoned him to starve – but even so, there is another consideration.
The Time Lords of Gallifrey in our debt.
VERNE. ROCINANTE: DEEP SPACE
‘Time Lord,’ I say slowly.
Partially, it is exercising long-unused vocal chords. But also amazement.
I know of the Time Lords – more of the meaningless data in my head, suddenly given meaning. Time Lords, the oligarchic rulers of the planet Gallifrey who exist outside time. An immensely civilized race who possess the secret to slip from world to world and era to era, traversing the continuum in fabulous machines with infinite interiors…
I don’t bother to question Natoren’s medical diagnosis; these space scavengers would not present it as a fact if they not genuinely believe it and for the first time my brain connects my internal biology with what is known of the Gallifreyans. It is improbable bordering on the ludicrous that my ancestry is unconnected to the Time Lords.
‘Do you want us to take you home?’ offers Dyaster.
‘It will be a long journey,’ I pointed out. ‘Perhaps too long for the Rocinante to manage, even if you can find payment along the way. Besides, I’m not sure I can ask such a favor of you so soon after you saved me.’
‘No matter. You need your people. We would do this for any one of us, and Kasterborous is somewhere new to be explored.’
‘If I can ever repay this kindness, I shall,’ I promise. I’ve never promised anything before, but this is not an oath I fell should be given lightly.
‘We might just call in that debt. But first we must make plans with the others…’
‘Perhaps you can throw a banquet in our honour?’ Hesh grins, playing with a snowglobe.
As the captain turns towards the door, a sudden gust of cold air rushes through passageway outside and subsides as quickly as it comes. I shiver, but neither Dyaster nor his son seems to have noticed. Is it my imagination or is the air thickening around me like treacle? The cold breeze is still there, chilling me to the bone with an ethereal howl echoing around inside my head.
‘What’s happening?’ I ask, but my voice is slurred like a recording at the wrong speed. Every syllable seems to stretch out into eternity, a turgid haze and the scavengers and indeed the whole Rocinante is sinking into stasis.
A time dilation field steadily pressing down harder, swamping, drowning…
And then it’s over. Everything is still and silent, frozen.
I look around in bewilderment as a blaze of noise – powerful, grinding engines rending time and space, a sound more beautiful than any other – comes from all around, from every corner of the small cabin I have only just claimed as my own. Even so, there is some strange hope, like the optimism of a child like Hesh.
There is a doorway, a hatch in the bulkhead that was not there a moment ago. It slides back and someone steps out. Dyaster and Hesh and the rest of the Rocinante remain frozen, facing away from him as though they’ve turned their backs on the newcomer.
A man dressed in dark green robes – elaborate and archaic, with an aroma of corrupt decadence. He is tall, his hair so white it look almost bleached. He has a strong face with magnetic brown eyes – mocking eyes full of secrets. Paranoid quips whisper in my brain. Oh, what big eyes you have, grandmother. The better for you to see me with?
I do not recognize him at all and yet… and yet there is something familiar in him… something that said we knew each other. My exhausted mind catches a glimpse of… something. Somewhere. A desperate, frantic race against time that turned out to be a fool’s errand. A deep voice mocking me and my friends…
You must cease your activities… we have often criticized you for the way you interfere… perhaps this will prove a lesson to you?
‘A member of the High Council of Time Lords on Gallifrey,’ I say, not sure if I’m quoting myself or not.
‘Quite correct, my boy. You have no doubt heard of us?’
Oh, what big ears you have, grandmother, the nagging voice of my subconscious continues relentlessly, spouting nursery tales at me. The better for you to hear me with?
‘I must apologize it took so long to locate you. You were hidden too well and too far away from home. We were only aware of your existence when we detected this vessel approaching Kasterborous.’
‘It has not even set course there.’
‘Not now, but it would have – and that is enough for the Matrix of Time. This at least spares you a journey of two point one three standard solar years.’ He flashes me with a diamond-bright smile that makes my hearts uneasy.
Oh, what big teeth you have, grandmother. The better for you to eat me with?
‘Shall we return home?’ asks Vipod Mor.
How do I know that is his name? This big bad wolf?
I indicate my rescuers. ‘What about the people aboard this ship?’
‘Oh, no harm has come to them,’ the Time Lord assures me. ‘Once the time fields are restored it will be as though none of this has happened to them, that they never met you. Their lives will continue as normal.’
I look at the frozen Dyaster and Hesh. I’ve known them such a short time yet miss them already – even more at the thought our brief time together has been erased from their memories. ‘They were kind to me,’ I say, unable to come up with a better epitaph.
‘Believe me… Verne, isn’t it?... it is better they are left out of this.’
I sense he might be right on that score, but I have not forgotten my debt to them so soon. ‘They went to great trouble to save my life, and were willing to go to more to return me to Gallifrey,’ I explain.
‘And they asked for no reward?’
Vipod Mor smiles. ‘Then they shall receive it – in abundance.’
He turns and leisurely strolls back through the impossible doorway. I look back at the frozen tableau; the sooner I leave, the sooner they will be freed. I am sure Vipod Mor is observing me, and any weakness – even an attempt at saying goodbye – will undermine what position I have in this new relationship.
I turn and follow him through the door, into a space that shouldn’t be there. I am no longer aboard the Rocinante but in a large room with white walls patterned with circular depressions. Other doors lead off from this chamber which is dominated by a hexagonal bench surrounding a semi-transparent cylinder. The complicated array of displays and switches on this control bank are naggingly familiar.
To one side is a desk where two robed figures similar to Vipod Mor are at work; one is scribbling over a scroll with a quill pen, the other examining the results. The scribe never looks up from his work. The other stares at me quite blatantly.
Fortunately I’m already suspicious.
There is a hum and the doors behind me swing shut, and I realize another Time Lord is moving around the console, punching a few keys and buttons. Immediately, the central cylinder begins a slow, measured oscillation – rising and falling in a hypnotic rhythm. Obviously the ship… TARDIS… is now in flight.
I breathe in deeply. The air of the TARDIS seems to invigorate me.
‘The course is set,’ the pilot announces. ‘We will arrive soon.’
‘Where are we going?’
Vipod Mor smiles. ‘Kasterborous Gamma Two, or as prefer to call it – Gallifrey.’
I dislike the familiarity of this Time Lord, which has none of the respect of the scavengers. Perhaps because I know he does not trust me. Or perhaps because his eyes are too dark to read the thoughts behind?
Vipod Mor indicates an oblong viewer inset into the far wall. It activates, becoming an observation window like the portholes of the Rocinante.
‘Welcome home, Verne.’
The scanner is filled with a vast molten sphere glowing orange and red – probably not that exotic, but after nothing but the grim grey browns of mud anything would appear bright and colour.
The pilot says something about transduction barrier clearance, but my eyes are focused on the screen as one of the continents seems to rush towards us – a burnt caramel valley under the warm orange skies, and in between a vast crystalline sphere like a gigantic version of Hesh’s snowglobe. It is full of tall buildings and towers, tiny flying shapes of air-cars darting between them – snowflakes to complete the comparison. But as the citadel fills the screen I realize its scale…
Etarho’s moon could easily fit inside several times over.
The size and expanse, the confirmation the limits of my life have been needlessly restrictive and small, leave me in a state of awed dislocation. It will prove to be my undoing, because immediately events spiral out of any chance of control.
The scanner eye zooms through the panorama of streets and walkways, decorated with riots of castellated ornamentation – this whole citadel was forged from a culture of grandiosity, pomposity and ritualized obsession. A culture I am to be a part of.
I don’t know what to make of the implications.
VIPOD MOR. VIPOD MOR’S TARDIS: GALLIFREY
The pulse dies in the TARDIS dynamos and all settles. Personally I cannot wait to leave, see my own people again, breathe my own air, mingle with my own kind. It was a short journey out into the feral chaos of the universe, but more than long enough for me.
The scanner shows one of the high walkways, not far from the junior senate block, where the TARDIS has made contact with Gallifrey once again. Verne is staring at the screen, his expression inscrutable. I briefly wonder what he’s thinking before I remember I really don’t care. This is duty to be carried out, not primitive social niceties.
A tiny buzzing un-sound alerts me to the fact “privacy mode” has been engaged. As far as Verne is concerned, nothing in the room has changed and he is unaware I have actually turned to see what the Investigator has to tell me.
He looks up from the desk, his companion still scribbling details on a scroll. ‘Your Grace? We have completed our analysis. There are… anomalies.’
‘The Verne individual is twenty years, six months, five days, three hours old. Yet he is clearly a post-regenerative form. Even if he regenerated as a child, he would have been a minimum of eight years older,’ he explains, as if I – or any Time Lord – can forget the initiation into the Academy and the sight of the Untempered Schism.
But if Verne is not a young Time Lord freshly-reborn then what?
‘Created as a separate physical form during regeneration?’ I wonder out aloud.
‘Another thing,’ the Investigator adds, showing me another page covered in notes. ‘The lindos cell clusters within the triple helix are completely inert. Verne cannot regenerate naturally, nor has he ever done so.’
‘Not an accident, then. A deliberate attempt to alter the regenerative process, almost certainly with the intention of extending the life cycle,’ I conclude. ‘Is there any clue as to his previous identity before the experimentation?’
The second Investigator looks up for the first time. ‘All bio-data extracts match perfectly with another Time Lord already on record. A Prydonian known as the Doctor.’
It does not surprise me. The Doctor, like all reactionary anarchists, wishes to carry on fighting his pointless battles even after his death. Clearly he created this replacement to carry on his so-called legacy, probably using stolen alien clone technology.
‘Current status of the Doctor?’ I ask.
‘Alive and well as far is known.’
‘Then this creation is outside the current timeframe. The guiding principles of Rassilon are quite clear on the subject. All half-forms must be dealt with in the same way.’
I send a thought impulse to end the deception. Verne frown and looks up, his senses already attuned to the point perception filters are no longer fully-functional. Oh well, good for him. I cross straight to the console and rest my closed fist against the panel, the better for the blue gemstone of my ring to fit into the console socket.
‘Is something wrong?’ he asks.
‘A slight change of plan, no more.’
The first Investigator joins me at the console. ‘All protocols have been observed. Coordinates set. Exiting temporal suspension.’
The time rotor begins to rise and fall once more. Verne’s eyes narrow in suspicion.
‘Where are you taking me?’ he demands.
‘Not a very original remark. But not to worry. My team have identified your biogenic signature and we are on our way to deliver you to your proper place.’
‘If you know who I am, why not tell me?’
‘You are who you are, Verne. Who am I to say otherwise? You are Gallifreyan back on Gallifrey, what more needs to be said. Now, although this is a most interesting conversation, there are nevertheless other matters to be resolved.’
The TARDIS completes its journey and comes to a rest at a destination even less enticing than the scavenger ship. I indicate for one of the technicians to open the main door.
Time to bring a conclusion to this ghastly affair.
VERNE. GALLIFREY: THE SHADOW HOUSE
I follow Vipod Mor outside. We have materialized in another gleaming corridor, black rather than green marble but the same ribbed pillars and fussy grilles I saw of the Capitol. Behind me the TARDIS is now a tall, flat cylinder of sandy coral-like stone with a sunken rectangular doorway leading into darkness.
Ahead is a large, luxurious room. The chairs and tables and couches, lamps and mirrors are ornate and over-decorated. Elaborate golden scrollwork on the arches between rooms, and I can see more rooms with drapes and tapestries and pieces of sculpture. Some intricate carvings atop the doorways direct to sleeping rooms, baths, showers, saunas.
Opulence. I don’t like it.
‘Where are we?’ I ask, still getting used to speaking out aloud.
‘As promised, Verne, you are now amongst your own kind.’
‘I thought I was before…’
‘You were mistaken, I fear,’ the old man replies smugly, and my dislike of him grows in turn. ‘Your place is not in Gallifrey’s great Capitol, but is here in one of the Shadow Houses. They are to be the home for you and your like – blasphemies that should not exist, created in the failure of the raw regenerative flux.’
Beyond this reception area is a part of the complex where the others reside. Some are children sitting and playing with a lack of enthusiasm with the over-stuffed furniture
Others, men and women who seem perfect in form, clearly have gone mad and stare blankly into their own private hells. And they are the least frightening ones.
For in this vast room alone are at least three hundred and twenty-two other beings whose deformities are both obvious and horrific.
I see one man whose head is one gigantic eyeball, topped with a mop of red-blond hair. A strong, muscular young androgynous figure with flowers sprouting from his pores. An old woman covered from head to toe in thumbs, several people whose bodies were completely different from the waist down and those with extra limbs or – most nauseatingly at the time – a young girl with all her internal organs outside her body, the intestines slung under her arm and her brain matter protruding through her skull.
Most are just sitting around, looking at an entertainment centre with holograms of music and live performances of dramas I cannot be bothered to recognize at presence. There’s clearly nothing else to do here but wait to die.
VIPOD MOR. GALLIFREY: THE SHADOW HOUSE
I look across the monstrosities, as if I need reassurance that this is necessary.
The nearest is a bloated, wrinkled creatures with misshapen limbs that suggest two sets of arms trying to grow from the same joints ending in dog paws. An oval head split right down the middle with a sideways shark mouth with a reptilian tongue coiling out to taste the air. Mad, rolling eyeballs sprout from either side in the place of ears. I cannot be sure if it is sitting next to another half-form or the mass of pink tentacles and thin tendrils ending in snapping claws is a tumorous growth.
It’s almost as repellant as the seemingly-normal Gallifreyan woman crawling on all fours, grinning through her foaming mouth and blind eyes at anything in her path. Or the young Time Lord whose arms are too long, as if the flesh and bones are a size too large for the skin, which keeps splitting and healing with ropes of sticky red goo. Or that one being thirteen times, each an apparently-normal incarnation but each one with a fixed skeletal smile and their eyes in such dark shadow they may not have eyes at all.
I refuse to let the corruption here spread. I have no hesitation.
‘Gallifrey prefers not to admit that such mistakes can happen, that a Time Lord may regenerate body but not brain, or regress to children or transformed into things unspeakable. Thus by the decree of Rassilon, you will be contained here.’
I recite the words perfectly.
‘We but administer. You are imprisoned not by a court but by the power of the law.’
The almost-Doctor looks at me in outrage. ‘Imprisoned? I have committed no crime!’
‘Existence is your crime,’ I remind him, bluntly cutting through his infantile righteousness. ‘You may be sound in mind and body, but you are an aberration. You will live out the rest of your twisted lifespan here in this oubliette.’
He glares at me. Such ingratitude.
VERNE. GALLIFREY: THE SHADOW HOUSE
The Time Lord outright sneers at me.
‘We are not barbarians, Verne. There are food and drink dispensers that will provide any gourmet refreshment you could possibly think of, free of charge. There are sleeping quarters, bathing facilities, recreational and exercise sections. Everything you could ask for – except a way to leave, of course.’
‘It’s a vast improvement on that hellhole where you were discovered, Verne. Here all is provided. Food, drink, sanitation, entertainment, exercise…’
‘But not freedom,’ I remind him, bluntly cutting through his insincere platitudes.
‘Well, you didn’t have that to start with. This is a much better environment in which to live and die, don’t you think?’
‘You do not, otherwise you’d be staying here with me.’
‘Touché,’ he concedes and for the first time I realize his ploy: annoying me so much I haven’t noticed his gradual backpedal out of the reception foyer and back towards his TARDIS. One more step backwards and he crosses the threshold of the doorway.
‘Enjoy the walls, Verne. They’ll be here every day!’
The metal door slides shut between me and his smirking face. I make a move forward, reaching out with my hand. Too late. The TARDIS is gone.
And I am trapped. Totally and utter trapped.
I’ve spent enough time doing nothing, contemplating how to escape an inescapable planet – be it the mud fields of Etarho’s moon or this new construct. As before, the only way out is the way I arrived and that is no longer in commission.
But this time there can be no hope of rescue from the outside universe.
I refuse to let my life return to an empty succession of food and sleep stretching forever. Whatever time is left I must find a constructive use for. The Shadow Houses were forged millennia ago and have all but been abandoned by the outside civilization. Entropy, decay, lack of maintenance, some tiny crack in the wall could provide escape.
I must find it.
After all, there’s nothing else to do.
VERNE. GALLIFREY: THE SHADOW HOUSE
The inhabitants of this prison barge have little interest in me; those sane enough to still have any interest, anyway. Many prisoners avoid me, preferring their own isolation. Some have clustered near the foyer of this complex, sleeping and eating in the rooms nearby. Others wander off deeper into the tunnels and passages and if there is some means of escape, no one has ever returned to share the secret. The thought gives me some hope: I certainly wouldn’t risk my own freedom for this vermin nest of rejects.
Some of the more able-bodied inmates bully the others, ordering them about as slaves and expecting respectful obedience. Given their needs are easily met by the food machines and fabrication dispensers, this pecking order and social hierarchy is doubly pathetic. The State of Grace ensures no violence can harm anyone, so they can never back up threats with violence. I assume the timid servants do it simply as something to pass the time as we all wait in here to finally curl up and die.
After two decades with no other contact, I am taken completely by surprise by the concept of being picked on. The idea of bullying. It wearies me rather than offends – they tease me over my name. “Verne the Beautiful” they call me, named after a cautionary tale of the Time Lord who believed good looks counted for more than intelligence and burnt out his regeneration cycle trying to remain conventionally handsome. Assuming he ever actually existed, he is probably trapped in this hellhole or one very much like it.
After spending a few nights in the more densely-populated region of the Shadow House, I decide that I would prefer solitude to the mock-tyranny and infantile abuse on offer. I spend a week walking through the bland marble labyrinth, following any direction as long as it leads away from the populated area. I said anywhere would be better than the nameless moon of Etarho, but the Shadow House threatens to undermine my conviction. At least there collecting food was more interesting than heading to a vending machine.
I still dream of that deserted ball of mud, and the nightmares I had of the dead beneath the ground, their clawed hands bursting out of the ground and grabbing my legs, dragging me down to join them at the core of the planet. At least I can take comfort that those thoughts and memories are my own, that I am more than the sloughed skin of some greater being. I wonder what happened to them and pray it hurt.
The deeper into the complex I travel, the fewer deformed faces I see. There are signs others have come this far and gone further. I find no bodies or skeletons. Are they collected somehow? Could I escape by faking my own death?
By my reckoning I’ve already been here for eight months with no sign of sky or daylight. The Time Lords reject their natural surroundings, so the lack of windows is a cultural factor rather than deliberate torment. Not that this provides comfort, but sometimes I can spend time wondering if this building is above or below ground – or even near any kind of ground at all. The lack of information ensures no escape plan can be formulated.
Knowledge is power.
CHEEVAH. GALLIFREY: THE SHADOW HOUSE
I know you.
One paradox always recognizes another.
I wonder how you came to be here. I at least am responsible for my own fate. Me, the pride of the Class of the Fourth Millennium who was so terrified of the Councilor’s deranged offspring I tried to contact my future incarnation and ask him for help.
When Anzor sealed me into that block of crystal and threw me off the top of Prydon Academy, he was there to generate the anti-grav field to prevent me smashes to pieces on the paving stones below. But I hadn’t thought this was the same accident that brought the next Cheevah into being. He had unwritten his past, my present, and so I still crashed to the ground, bones breaking, regeneration triggering…
The regeneration failed and from then on I have been trapped here, trying to transform into a Cheevah that can never be, only to flicker back to my old self which no longer was. Trapped in a paradox for all eternity, slowly ground into insanity.
But I recognize the Doctor when I see him.
But it is not the Doctor, is he? Not the one I remember. But what do I remember? The past or the future? The possible or the real? But yes I know him, as I knew him as he was helpless to stop Anzor’s cruel prank. Were I not there, the Doctor would have been the one who died that day, murdered by a reckless bully. My unmaking, my removal from official history and dumping in this black nursery ensures Anzor is never punished.
Yet the Doctor is here.
He owes me.
VERNE. GALLIFREY: THE SHADOW HOUSE
Eight months, eight years, eight decades, more. My body is slowly but surely beginning to age. Lines are starting to form in the flesh of my face and my fringe is receding. I have yet to run out of corridors to traverse, rooms to sleep in or halls to cross. There is no evidence of anyone having escaped or been rescued. I’ve found more than one half-form hanging from a cloister in a futile attempt to end their torment, but even that freedom is out of reach. Just as we cannot harm each other, we cannot harm ourselves.
I do not know where I am trying to go to. Perhaps find an outer wall? A weak-point? The data extract terminals regurgitate any information except that regarding the Shadow Houses, and are deadlocked to allow data to come in, but to never leave. There is no possible way to call for help or request a meeting. Much of the data already exists in my mind, the residue from whoever I once could have been, and nothing useful is added.
I can imagine hundreds of different possible methods of escape but they are all useless. No guards to bribe or overpower or use as hostage; no intake of supplies to smuggle out; no air vents; no visitors; no doors; no. The Shadow House keys itself to your biorhythms. It will constantly ensure you remain here. It will reconfigure architecture, alter gravity, isolate and transduct as and when required. As long as you exist, you cannot escape even by dying. The Pandorica Principle, to use the colloquial description for the inescapable prison of cosmic folklore.
‘Welcome to the house of infinite chambers!’
I turn around and look back down the corridor to see… see…
‘I must confess to being very glad of your company. It has been many years. Many years, I assure you. I have been inclined to be lonely. Yes, even I!’
There is someone in the corridor with me. I can’t see who they are. I can’t hear their voice. Yet when they speak, I understand and my senses register their presence. It is impossible to focus my senses on him.
‘What…’ I stammer. ‘You are wrong.’
‘Can it be true? I am, you should know, quite well aware of my reputation. Permit me, if you will, to tell you the full story. Like so many here, the renewal of my mortal coil was pulled apart yet while others have been condemned in their flesh or their thoughts as punishment for arrogance and also vanity, my torment has to remain forever caught betwixt what could be and what never was. The flow of effect and cause is unsupervised in my presence, and so the gleam light is unable to project the image of the truth.’
I feel a compelling desire to leave this deranged paradox alone. Almost all the other insane inmates are silent and catatonic, or sealed up in sound-proofed quarters. Though he cannot harm me, his very existence threatens my perceptions which are the only reliable things I have left.
‘Who are you?’ I demand.
‘I am not… I was not… I never will be… Cheevah…’ An insane noise like a giggle. ‘Might I admit some surprise that it is you that I greet after all these years? You are not the man I expected, after all.’
‘Am I not?’
‘I have never known your name, only your aspect which, naturally, you posses.’
I frown. ‘How could you recognize me when we have never met before?’
‘Because we will meet after. I thought you my redeemer and I am right.’
‘Your redeemer?’ I echo, unimpressed.
‘The habitation of this place has worn me so terribly! I place myself at your disposal as you avenge us according to necessity. You have been buried here, but not lost. You can escape with justice, if you have the will.’
‘That is one aspect I have never lacked,’ I sneer and continue onwards.
I often see (or rather not see) Cheevah again. He is never welcome, but I never quite find the strength to turn away the closest thing I have to a friend in this purgatory.
VERNE. GALLIFREY: THE SHADOW HOUSE
It marks the end of the fourth decade of my third century in the Shadow House and my aimless trek has finally ended in a lift that allows access to the floors directly above and below. The indicator panel indicates there are at least fifty thousand such floors, and there are other panels for deeper or higher levels beyond those immediately either side.
I spend over three weeks in the lift heading for ever-higher levels. There has to be a top floor, an attic, a point beyond which it was not possible to keep going. Finally the mechanisms in the lift stop to re-orientate and re-power, so I step out to examine the uppermost floor of the Shadow House.
And I discover I am back in the original reception area. The lift seals itself off, showing no hint it was ever there and is completely inaccessible. The rest of the half-forms hurl abuse at me when I can’t stop laughing.
THE MASTER. THE DEATH ZONE: THE TOMB OF RASSILON
Lying face down in the Tomb of Rassilon with a bruised jaw, bound and gagged is a low point in my life. On the positive side, it is preferable to burning alive on Sarn which would have been my fate if Borusa hadn’t sought out my assistance. And it is also far better than what happened to Borusa once he achieved immortality; the Brigadier has unwittingly saved me from a fate worth than death.
I really must thank him for that before I kill him.
The Doctor is babbling like the coward he is. ‘One of us is trapped…’
I know. He too shall be freed – so shall the one who is bound.
That’s me. Rassilon is just letting me go?
His sins will find their punishment in due time.
The tomb recedes into darkness, taking the Doctors and their entourage with them. I can feel the bonds vanishing from my wrists and ankles as I am transmigrated out of the Tomb, out of the Dark Tower, out of the Death Zone itself…
The voice of Rassilon murmurs in my ear.
What plans do you have? What proposals other than you should be master of all yet you are unable even to persuade your oldest of friends to listen to you! Your only cause is your ambition, your only goal your deification, your only ethic is yourself!
The grand, theatrical voice in the tomb is changing. Older. More subdued.
The universe will not miss you when you are gone, my lord Master. You have shattered too many lives and dreams to evoke any pity, and your unnaturally-extended existence has merely brought further embarrassment to the Time Lords of Gallifrey. You tarnish our celestial reputation and bring nothing in return.
The voice changes again. A darker, threatening growl.
Your past and current actions have contributed nothing but madness and death, but in future you can be used to shape the destiny of my empire as I see fit. Until then, be glad of the mercy I have shown you in letting you not only live, but to ever have existed.
Rassilon falls silent.
Sanctimonious old windbag, though it would be a lie to say that his words don’t carry weight. When the first of all Time Lords, architect of the oldest civilization in all creation and founder of your very society takes time out to make some very personal criticism, even I feel an alien pinprick of shame.
It feels quite unfair that I of all Rassilon’s children should be mocked for showing the slightest initiative any Gallifreyan has shown since Omega himself. What does Rassilon know of the dangers I have faced? The threats I have overcome? The enemies I have put down? The sacrifices I have made to fulfill my goals?
As a matter of fact, he actually seems to know quite a lot about them and that in itself worries me. As is the clear implication it is only some secretive whim that stops Lord Rassilon from unmaking me with a thought…
For the first time in my memory, I might have just encountered a being who believes themselves superior to me and actually has a right to do so.
It is an unpleasant thought. Frightening, even. After all, when it comes to arrogant, cruel, power-crazed megalomaniacal dictators – it takes one to know one.
The transmigration completes itself.
THE MASTER. GALLIFREY: THE SHADOW HOUSE
Where am I? Where have I been sent?
I get up and examine my surroundings. The bland, fussy-yet-sterile architecture of Modern Gallifrey is obvious. But there is something different – of course. The green and reds and oranges that characterize the colour schemes of Southern Gallifrey are replaced with subdued greys and blacks. The décor reminds me of my TARDIS, when I reconfigured the interior matt black so I could hide in the shadows without accidentally catching sight of my deformities and scars…
A black citadel… a black nursery?
The thought completes itself and I feel a sickening lurch in my guts. I certainly qualify as a half-form, the product of a failed regeneration. Thrown into this oubliette to rot out of view with the rest of the freaks and the best forgotten…
No matter. After I was snatched from the flames of Sarn I delayed my meeting with ex-President Borusa long enough to collect a Time Ring and program it to return to my TARDIS. It may not have got me out of the Death Zone, but now I’m out in the open and it will easily free me from this Shadow House.
Either Rassilon overlooked that or else he didn’t care. I’m uncertain which to hope for.
I have arrived outside one of the inhabited levels. Morbid curiosity suggest I see the true extend of regeneration failure, if only to reassure me how lucky I am even in his Trakenite husk. I cautiously creep along the corridor…
…and the Doctor appears at the other end of the junction.
It’s instinctive, unthinking recognition of his biogenic aura. I won’t admit I’ve trained myself to recognize him no matter what face he wears or body he’s changed, but I know I’m looking at the Doctor as certainly as I was when threatening the first three with my TCE less than an hour ago. But this is not one of the four in the Tomb, or even the Fourth who failed to attend. A sixth Doctor.
Tall, thin, close-cropped slicked-back black hair, beaky nose, pale face, ice-blue eyes. Something of a predatory bird about him, like an emaciated raven. Older than the latest Doctor, with a face that rarely if ever has smiled.
What is the Doctor doing in a Shadow House? These places aren’t the sort one can drop in by accident, and naïve fool would dismiss the rumors that these unholy halls even exist. Even I wasn’t sure the Shadow Houses were real until moments ago.
He is looking right at me, but with no interest or recognition.
And he’s not trying to lead a mass escape or a revolt.
And then it strikes me the obvious reason as to his presence.
Rassilon has not punished me but instead granted me a moment of triumph to savor. I should stretch this sensation out as long as possible, this victory which will never come again. It should flow like a steady stream instead of a tumbling waterfall.
The Doctor is a half-form. An unregenerate monstrosity locked away in the Shadow Houses. For all his superiority and mockery, the Doctor has recoiled from death as much as I have. He has not accepted fate but fought to extend his regeneration cycle and now he has ended up trapped in here, just like I have.
Except I can get out of here whenever I choose.
I choose to leave one I’ve killed the Doctor from the future.
No time for fear. Time to win. To kill him once and for all.
VERNE. GALLIFREY: THE SHADOW HOUSE
Someone I have not seen before; physically acceptable as half-forms go, except very pale and somehow dead-looking. There’s no sign of physical decay, but there’s a Grimwade Syndrome aura about him, an ambulating, sentient corpse. He’s dressed in black, matching his hair and beard.
There is an arctic fire in his eyes and his unsheathed smile unnerves me.
‘No doubt you were wondering when I would make an appearance?’ he purrs like a predatory feline, as if his civilized and reasonable demeanor could vanish at any second. ‘You don’t seem very pleased to see me,’ he teases.
‘I have never met you before.’
‘Not in this existence, perhaps.’
‘This is the only one that interests me.’
‘An attitude I can not help but admire.’ His manner becomes more business like. ‘Tell me how it was done, Doctor.’
If he realizes what I’m asking, he’s not interested in answering.
‘Tell me.’ An order, not a request.
‘Tell you what?’ I demand, my patience wearing thin.
‘How you did it, of course. You’re not here from a fault of regenerative failure, you have tried to break the limits imposed by Rassilon itself. A Time Lord who has successfully renewed themselves for the thirteen time. Such skill in telebiogenesis is impressive, this new form is truly a functional work of art. Indeed, I would go far to say that is the second best attempt to break the rules of regeneration I have ever come across.’
‘I have no idea…’ I reply, sounding more helpless than I wish to. ‘My memory does not extend prior to my creation, not that I am alone in such matters. The Time Lords believe it is some affront to the natural order, but they know even less than I do.’
‘Oh,’ he breathes, those terrible eyes gleaming with impossible, nonexistent things born of madness. ‘I believe you entirely. Post-regenerative amnesia can blank out one’s memories entirely, particularly during traumatic renewals. Unfortunately, the information you lack was the only thing staying my hand.’
‘Your hand?’ I repeat, glancing at his gloved digits. ‘Who are you?’
‘External identity is a fluid construct, composed of a few key elements that can be changed at will,’ he grins through his beard. ‘I knew this long before I became the Master, but somewhere along the line we seem to forget it. We fail to divest ourselves of all the trappings of our past personae even when he face different challenges and our previous identity can hamper the progress of its successor? You have successfully discarded your previous identity, Doctor, and you die a new man.’
‘Die?’ I arch an eyebrow. ‘All inmates of the Shadow Houses are kept in a state of grace. We cannot harm either ourselves or each other. You’re clearly just another intake, a half-form unaware of the rules. Your obsession with doctors makes that obvious, as much as your claiming to be a master of some kind.’
The Master as he calls himself is watching me closely.
‘Farewell. With any luck, we won’t meet again.’
I turn to head off, part of me realizing that I had been harsh on Cheevah who if nothing else was more interested than this monochrome dullard when suddenly my world explodes into agony.
A gloved fist hammers into the back of my head, sending my sprawling against one of the arched pillars. The pain of the blow is not overwhelming, but I have no felt any discomfort since was admitted here. I am hurt. I can be hurt.
The Master can hurt me.
He stands over me, crazed hatred in his eyes yet his voice is so calm.
‘A taste of what is to come. As you see, Doctor, I am not an inmate of this madhouse and the rules do not apply to me. I can inflict whatever harm I wish.’
He lunges towards me, but I manage to roll out of range of the wild assault.
‘I applaud your new body’s dexterity, Doctor. It’s deceptive.’
I scramble backwards, but I’m in the corner of a junction. There is nowhere to hide, nowhere to run without this deranged maniac attacking me. Inmate or no, he is right that the Shadow House has no interest in his actions. He might kill us all.
Inspiration sparkles across my synapses.
If the Temporal Grace does not effect the Master, then not only can he inflict harm but harm can be inflicted upon him. By that logic, I can fight back and I come to the firm conclusion that whoever the Master believes me to be, I am not one to tolerate a bully. I will fight back, I will never give up, never surrender. The cruel and the cowardly will live to regret assaulting me – assuming I let them live.
The Master moves in close for the kill, with the supreme confidence of someone who hasn’t realized just what danger they’re in. A second-rate foe and no mistake.
‘I’ve been waiting eons for this…’ he croons.
‘Really?’ I ask, surprised, and then kick out my left foot with all my strength against his velvet-clad knee. There is a satisfying crack and despite the Master’s clear pain threshold, his leg buckles unexpectedly. As he topples, I kick out again, and this time I connect with his solar plexus, driving him back to the floor.
‘You were waiting for that?’ I jeer, unable to hide my contempt. ‘Or was there something else you’ve been anticipating with such enthusiasm? Like this?’
I’m on my feet, darting forward. I grab the back of his coiled golden collar and wrench the Master upright, allowing me to drive my other fist into his bearded face. His head snaps around, but I’m holding his neck, forcing him to absorb the painful momentum of the blow. I fling his face down – right onto my own raised kneecap. It will leave me a bruise, but a small price to pay for the sound of the bones in his face crunching.
‘Or was that what you were waiting for?’ I ask, continuing this one-sided conversation, throwing the dazed and limp Master hard against the floor. ‘Or, best of all, was it this?’
I bring my foot down hard on his back – it would have been his head but he manages to roll out of the way. Murky, unnatural blood trickles from his nose, mouth and temple, sticking like cobwebs to his beard. A blunt reminder that this Time Lord, no matter how acceptable his outer shell, is rotten and decaying within.
‘It’s taken you all your lives,’ he gurgles painfully. ‘But you’re finally fighting back.’
I advance on him.
‘I’m no threat to you!’ he grunts, more confused than afraid.
Obviously this doctor of his was a soft-touch. A trait I certainly don’t share.
‘You think mere survival is enough for me? Even if I have to spend the whole of my life running from the Time Lords, that’s a better deal than remaining in this obscenity with these travesties and mutants! My freedom is all I want and if I have to rip your hearts apart with my bear hands then that will prove an added bonus…’
I drop down onto my haunches, against his injured leg with my not-inconsiderable weight, pinning him down as my hand darts out and clamps it around his pasty, cold throat. ‘I should inform you this is my first murder,’ I admit, ‘There’s a real chance the psychological scars of this act will cause me great discomfort once I kill you.’
‘So don’t kill me,’ croaks the Master, eyes narrowed in pain.
‘That idea has merit, but I still prefer the option of crushing your throat, larynx and spine into dust and pulp. After centuries in this prison, I have a great deal of frustration and anger which I look forward to unleashing upon you.’
‘I’m… not armed…’ he wheezes, unable to speak properly in my vice-like grip. I wonder if this creature still has a working respiratory bypass system.
‘Unarmed you may be, but yet somehow I find myself lacking the nerve to spare my own would-be assassin. And it does seem we’ve may a scores to settle between us and the time has come to settle them, don’t you think?’
‘I can tell you who you were,’ he pleads, eyes rolling in his head.
‘I don’t care any more. I am too sick and too tired for my past to matter any more. All I have left – ALL I HAVE LEFT – is the strength to survive this hellhole and break free – that is my goal and I shall see it through right to the bitter end!’
I’m practically screaming through my gritted teeth.
‘You were the Doctor!’ he groans, marshalling his very last argument.
‘Doctor?’ I scream. ‘Doctor who? Doctor who? Tell me! DOCTOR WHO?!?’
He grins through the blood and bruises. ‘You tell me,’ he sneers, and his hand moves with cobra-like speed – not to strike a blow against me, but to rip back the black velvet sleeve concealing his left wrist.
A wrist encircled with an ornate, elaborate copper bracelet with a spiral seal embossed; some strange version of a wristwatch. The mounted scroll glows gently, and senses at the back of my mind tingle. The air seems to shimmer and blur as time and space distort.
The Master is simply fading away into nothing, spinning and swirling yet somehow remaining perfectly still. The ghost-like madman laughs, but I cannot hear him as he finally vanishes and I am crouched over empty air.
‘It is a mistake to assume that identity is merely the property of a single individual,’ a familiar non-voice says behind me. Cheevah. I wonder how long he’s been watching on. ‘It is undeniably the case. You have defended yourself according to necessity. Can you not be persuaded to ease our torments and redeem us from this place, the habitation of which has worn us down so terribly?’
‘If you want revenge, then seek it on your own.’
‘My contributions should not be discounted; without me, it will be impossible for many ideas to come to fruition. I knew the Master once, when his megalomania was no more than vanity. And your original self was quite well known – amongst those who counted, if not among the greater populace.’
‘Whatever I was in the past, it is of no consequence now,’ I reply bitterly, getting to my feet. ‘It does not aide me in escaping this purgatory and if anything was the sole reason I was placed here. Perhaps I might be generous enough to unleash vengeance on the Time Lords on your behalf, but until I can escape the matter is purely academic.’
‘I am, you should know, quite well aware of this,’ Cheevah replies.
‘And do you have a way to escape?’
‘Escape is impossible. We can only ever be released. And while the elite of our race will not countenance our freedom, they will come for us if we can be of use.’
‘And what use can we be? What hold can we have over our jailors?’ I demand.
Had Cheevah a face, it probably would be smug.
‘Well, now – let us determine the solution.’
Cheevah retreats to a recreation area, obviously planning to discuss the matter further over food and drink.
I follow him.
There really is nothing else to do.
THE MASTER. THE MASTER’S TARDIS: THE SPACE/TIME VORTEX
The TARDIS is once again flight and away from wretched Gallifrey once more. I am disinclined to remain on my home planet while it is run by fools and hypocrites supported by the apathetic sheep of the general populace.
Where to now?
I have spent too much time and resources and personal commitment pursuing an enemy whose destruction was hardly justify the investment. The Doctor has been never more than annoyance, a fly I tire of swatting at. Yet my attempts to bring him down have cost me my regeneration cycle, the purity of my Time Lord heritage and come close to killing me on Terserus and Sarn. Back on Traken, the potential reward of claiming his body as my own had been worth the chase but that prize had been fleeting.
This, however, has proved a totally unexpected development – a Fourteenth Doctor from the far distant future, having somehow broken the regeneration limit at the cost of his memories (a small price to pay given they could be restored over an afternoon with his bio-data extract and a decent telepathic relay). The knowledge of how it was done would be invaluable, but if the Doctor can crack the secret, I should have no problem achieving if not mastering the same process.
No, it’s not the creation of this Doctor that leads me to urgently review and reestablish the priorities and guiding principles by which I structure my life. It is his nature.
Raw anger, violence, untempered rage. None of the compassion and high-minded politic that have always held him as my inferior in the past. Almost as if he’s somehow been purged of all weakness, every scruple and morale code to leave just the darker sides of his nature. An amalgamation of the previous twelve incarnations, perhaps more…
The Doctor on his own is by any measure a formidable opponent. But unsullied by a single noble thought? A composite of every cruel and cowardly impulse, distilled into young, aggressive form?
At least, not at present.
At present… but he is not part of the present, is he? Not truly. No, he is a mysterious creation from events yet to unfold countless centuries in the future. A future that can, if necessary, be rewritten and altered as I see fit. I can prevent his creation quite simply, by ending the life of my contemporaneous Doctor. I certainly owe him that after his crimes on Sarn. Yet I have tried that before…
Intelligence manifests itself not in avoiding mistakes but in avoiding their repetition.
My hatred and friendship with the Doctor have never quite balanced out, sometimes twisting my stomach, sometimes destroying my train of thought more than the never-ending drumming beating against the inside of my skull. I have nothing to show for all our encounters except of a variety of humiliating defeats and injuries.
I need… impartiality. Distance. Detachment. Or at least an ally possessing such strengths, not the unreliable scapegoat of Kamelion, or the plasmatons or the denizens of Castrovalva. Attempting to maintain in total control has proved a weakness, rather than using those whose skills and abilities can be employed to greater advantage.
I could create an army of mindless, obedient drones. But I require technical brilliance and subtlety as well as ruthless tenacity and animal cunning. I need someone whose genius rivals my own but ambitions can be kept under my control.
I know just the Time Lady.
Making contact with her, finding a way to capture her loyalty – or at least the closest she can approximate – will undoubtedly be the most worthwhile challenge I have faced since escaping Traken. I must ensure our objectives coincide, that she has no choice but to help me eradicate the Doctor once and for all; a demonstration of what we would be capable of working together. A partnership like no other.
The Master… and the Rani.
Time to renew our acquaintance.
CHEEVAH. GALLIFREY: THE SHADOW HOUSE
Oh, at last the Doctor comes to speak with me. I force myself to be lucid as he forces himself to be patient. Just as light and sound warp around the flux of my paradox, so do words and concepts. I must sound like a madman. Or at least madder than I already am.
We must discuss a matter. The only matter that matters.
The science, the history of regeneration.
‘The process of regeneration is reasonably straightforward,’ he says. ‘Exposure to the artron energy from the Untempered Schism, combined with the lindos chemical glands throughout the adult Gallifreyan allow the symbiotic nuclei to split apart. With the triple-helix DNA stand added, the end result is self-repairing, restoring and reorganizing into a brand new physical form, even down to the brain cells.’
‘And how many enfleshments boasts the men of Gallifrey?’
‘Thirteen. Their original form and twelve replacements.’
‘And the reason?’
‘It was decreed by Rassilon that the nuclei can only be split twelve times before it becomes unstable, the biogenic molecules start decaying exponentially. Were you not paying attention?’
‘You refer to facts that should not be discounted. The nuclei may be split twelve times with stability, but it can be split more than twelve times. Each and every Lord of Time uses but a fraction of the regenerations available.’
‘But from the twelfth onwards they are unstable.’
‘The house of infinite chambers is full of those, they say, who were unstable before they reached that dozen mark. If instability can occur before the limit is reached, surely then philosophy can encompass that stability can occur afterwards.’ I smile, a meaningless gesture, but it is only polite. ‘The limit, is therefore… limitless.’
He is pensive. Thoughtful. I remember him when we were both full-forms. Oh, his mind could throw itself with zeal and enthusiasm into disciplines that interest him. If he researches this academia, his sole focus, his obsession…
‘A Time Lord on his thirteen body triggers the regeneration process,’ he says at last. ‘But because the nuclei is unstable, the transformation will not complete itself properly. The fourteenth incarnation is left either a broken body, a broken mind or both.’
‘Your deliberations exclude the most terminal options, yes, that they die.’
‘And so Time Lords en masse choose to perish rather than risk the limit.’
‘The greater populace are slaves to fashion, as Verne the Beautiful once proved.’
‘Stop trying to be funny, Cheevah. No part of your paradox possesses wit.’
‘My point is clear, my reason concrete. Can any true man doubt my conclusion?’
‘As there are no true men here, the question is academic. What is your conclusion?’
I focus all my thoughts to make the statement as clear and unambiguous. ‘That without the limit the Time Lords may live on, regeneration after regeneration. Life eternal!’
‘If that’s the best logic you can offer, Gallifrey is no poorer without your genius, Cheevah,’ he sneers. ‘The fact remains the limit is there.’
‘And the reason for its presence?’
‘Look it up yourself. I’m sure Rassilon explained it in detail.’
‘We base assume his word can be trusted.’
He is quiet for a while. At last he speaks.
‘Quite. We may be operating on a false premise. His discovery of the regeneration limit could merely be the revelation he actually created it. But even so, once applied to the genetic makeup of all modern Gallifreyans, it may be impossible to use.’
‘An unjustified opinion, my friend as you yourself stand as proof.’
‘I? Only a Time Lord at the end of his life cycle could possible prove it could be extended, that the boundaries could be broken – someone with nothing to lose and conducting studies that have been illegal for ten million years…’
‘And the end result?’
He is so quiet for so long I wonder if I’m too mad to perceive him any more.
‘A brand new, fourteenth body. But without the ability to regenerate, without any memories of the previous thirteen lives.’ His tone is level, his eyes downcast. ‘But with no previous research, an amount of trial and error would be unavoidable. I am unsuccessful proof that the regeneration limit can be overcome, but proof that experiments are carried out and were undoubtedly on the right track.’
‘Ignore accusations of arrogance, of blasphemy,’ I urge. ‘You are sound in flesh and bone and thought and deed. You could unravel the baselines that underpin the oldest civilization. The gift of true, endless life. With that as a bargain, nothing is impossible. Remove the regeneration limit, Verne, and remove all limits.’
I grin with two mouths, losing ground with sanity with every word.
But the conclusion warms me in the cold and dark.
‘Power untold, Verne. Power untold!’
PERI. THE TARDIS: 2,000,1986 AD
There’s too much of dad in my face for me to mistake my reflection for mom. Even though I had my hair done in the latest Baltimore fashion – long feathery curls like one of the Bangles – and I’m wearing the wide belt and hip-hugging slacks she favored. Ash grey and burnt yellow, the colours she was wearing last time I saw her.
This is morbid, I know. But I’ve just done it again, run away from Earth and the USA on a second’s whim to be with the Doctor in the TARDIS. Only this time, I’m not leaving anything behind. Howard’s long gone, my friends have disappeared and mom…
I don’t know if she’d want me to stay on Earth, keep hold of the life I was rebuilding there, or whether she’d prefer me to be back with the Doctor, making the universe just a little bit better than it would be. I don’t know if I’m looking for an excuse to stick with the TARDIS or leave it forever. Until then, this new look will make sure I don’t forget about what I’ve lost and that there are still decisions I have to make.
I’m spending too long standing in front of a mirror, lost in reverie.
Right or wrong, my life still needs to be lived by someone.
I head back into the console room. The Doctor’s rushing around the console, pressing keyboards and checking monitors. Odd to think it was only few minutes for him between leaving me and finding me again at mom’s funeral, but for me…
‘Almost there, I think, Peri,’ he announces, looking between his star chart and a heavy leather-bound book which lies on the other side of the control console. The words “WORRIS BOSSARD” are written on it in large and important letters and underneath, almost as a footnote, is “EXTINCT CIVILIZATIONS”.
‘Where’re we headed?’ I ask, trying to shake off my despondence.
‘A place neither you nor I have ever been,’ he says mysteriously.
I look across at the open viewer. The scanner window shows a planet in space, blue and green and Earth-like but the details are hidden by a spiral of white clouds like a tornado, or if the red spot on Jupiter covered the whole sphere. I can’t see any moon. In the right mood, it would be majestic. I find myself wondering what mom would think of it…
The musical chime from the console snaps me out of it as the TARDIS announces that it’s landed. The Doctor’s been talking for a bit, but my attention has wandered a bit. Trying to make up for it, I’m the one who opens the doors and step outside.
The police box aspect of the TARDIS was parked in the middle of a forest clearing, a flat patch of grass bordered with tall trees – mostly firs, but there are quite a few leafless and gnarled growths I try and identify as any dutiful botanist would.
And then suddenly it starts raining, with sweeping clouds of icy droplets that leave both me and the police box sodden in seconds. ‘Oh, great!’ I whine, hugging myself.
The Doctor, of course, is only just now about to leave the warm dryness of the TARDIS. He sees the rain and stops in the doorway. ‘Hang on!’ he says cheerfully and ducks back inside and even though he’s only gone a few seconds it feels like the miserable hours standing next to mom’s grave…
I look back and the Doctor’s shoving a yellow-and-white striped jacket that goes perfectly with my clothes. Given his usual fashion sense, it must have been a million-to-one-chance, since he’s also holding a golfing umbrella that matches his rainbow coat.
‘Can’t we come back some other time?’ I ask, teeth chattering as I pull on the jacket. ‘Like when it’s not raining?’
‘Oh, stop whinging!’ he bellows, opening up the umbrella.
He’s eager to get on with adventuring and after what we’ve just been through complaints about the weather seem pretty trivial, but I’m still the one completely soaked and cold. ‘I don’t understand why you wanted to come here in the first place,’ I grumble.
‘Then,’ he replies cheerfully, ‘you should have listened more carefully!’
With that, umbrella over his shoulder and keeping him bone-dry, he stalks off towards the leafless part of the woodlands – leaving me in the swirling rain. ‘Hey!’ I squeak indignantly. ‘Don’t I get some?’
With an eye-rolling grunt of exasperation he rushes back to my side, angling the umbrella so I’m finally out of the rain. ‘Sorry,’ he says through a gritted teeth, like he’s making a half-hearted (quarter-hearted?) effort to be polite, and with his free hand indicates the way into the depths of the woods.
Then he heads off again, with me practically having to run to keep pace with him.
I don’t even know what this stupid planet is called…
VERNE. GALLIFREY: THE SHADOW HOUSE
It is a day like any other in this prison. Time has passed, and Cheevah has finally escaped the Shadow House as his body cracked under the pressure and the time paradox snapped. He was once, but is no more and I am once again alone. I’ve long stopped counting the years I have been trapped here but today stands out for obvious reasons.
I walk down yet another passageway when suddenly a strange chill runs down my spine. The transduction barriers around the Shadow House are shifting once more. A red glow fills the air around me. My body tenses, but the transmigration is already complete.
Now I stand in a pristine pearlescent room, like an anteroom in limbo itself. Ahead of me stands a stern figure in long, richly-patterned green robes. The face is different, so is the body, but I recognize my jailor instinctively.
‘What do you want of me?’
‘No welcome, Verne?’ asks Vipod Mor with mock-reproach.
‘Inmates are not allowed visitors from the outside.’
‘But you’re not an inmate any more – not if you don’t want to be.’
‘I never wished to be an inmate. For you to suddenly concern yourself with me can only mean there is something you want from me, and so I refer you to my original question.’
‘There is a trifling matter we wish you to attend to…’
‘Those who can secure your freedom, of course. You were placed in the Shadow Houses to keep you out of trouble until certain conditions arose, certain circumstances finally played out. It has been a long time coming, even by our standards.’
‘Then you’d best get to the point.’
‘Very well, but first I need you to answer a question.’
‘And what question would that be?’
‘What do you know of the planet Ravolox?’