Silver City Traffic Control gave authorization for the civilian ship Castro to dock at repair station three. The Castro had come to this space station to deliver a very special cargo, but it had been damaged en route and so did not dock with the rest of the traffic.
There was no mistaking the impatience and annoyance of the captain as she disembarked the Castro at the repair yard on the outer wheel of the station. Her name was Lara and no sooner was she outside then she began to inspect her vessel for damage. Her co-pilots Tscheni and Anjad were in a similarly foul mood as they emerged from the ship.
‘So what do we do now?’ asked Anjad.
‘You can do what you like,’ Lara called. ‘I'm staying with the ship. And you,’ she said the final crewmember emerging from the Casto, ‘are never flying with me again.’
The blonde woman tutted patronizingly. ‘I warned you not to fall in love with me, Lara.’
‘Shut up!’ chorused the other three, heartily sick of her innuendo.
‘So, this friend of yours runs a repair operation here?’ Anjad asked Lara, changing the subject.
‘Not exactly a friend, but they’re useful and unlike the technician fitters, they don’t ask questions,’ Lara replied. ‘Which is good because explaining how the ship got damaged would be embarrassing to say the least!’ she added pointedly.
The final member of the crew shrugged, failing in every respect to look innocent. ‘I just wanted to see how fast we could go – and frankly it was a real disappointment,’ she replied, folding her arms. ‘I mean, time distort fifteen is the speed limit, not something to aspire to!’
‘All the sensors on the starboard aft are broken, so we don’t even know how much damage you did!’
‘Exactly,’ was the smug rejoinder. ‘There’s no reason to think I did a lot of damage.’
‘Apart from the fact you always do a lot of damage to everything and everyone!’
‘I prefer to think of it as violent improvements rather than damage…’
‘Oh who cares what that madwoman thinks!’ Tscheni snapped, losing her temper. ‘Just get her away from this ship! She can hitchhike back to the university for all I care!’
The trouble-marker snorted derisively. ‘Well, if that’s your attitude, don’t expect me to help with the repairs,’ she told them flatly. ‘Because I doubt your dodgy mechanics have the manpower to fix the ship this side of the solar week on their own…’
‘We’ll take the chance,’ grunted Anjad impatiently. ‘Get lost.’
There was a pause. ‘Yeah…’ she said, suddenly distracted. ‘I might do that.’
‘What is it?’ asked Lara, interested despite herself.
The woman nodded to the other side of the repair yards to the outskirts of Silver City proper. For some reason, a wooden blue crate with glass panels and strange markings stood like an information booth on one of the curved walkways leading towards the inner hubs.
‘I think,’ she said in a low, predatory voice, ‘I’ve just seen an old friend of mine.’
‘I doubt that,’ said Anjad.
She smiled and chuckled. ‘Oh, we go way back…’
‘No, I doubt you have any friends. At all.’
‘Who needs friends when you’ve got a doctor?’ the woman asked slyly. With that rather cryptic and nonsensical remark left hanging, she set off towards the blue box without looking back.
The trio exchanged grim looks.
‘If I never see that woman again,’ vowed Tscheni, ‘it will be too soon…’
The TARDIS had materialized at some point. The Doctor was still leaning against the console, staring sightlessly into the depths of the motionless time rotor and trying to find the inclination to do… anything. He’d been slumped over the controls ever since leaving Chiswick and Wilf and Donna. The universe was saved, the Daleks almost-certainly wiped out, and he was alone again. What next? His companions had all gone their separate ways, and he would never see Donna or Rose again. The only thing he had to look forward to on the horizon was for his “song” to come to an end.
He’d undergone the regeneration process again, too, but managed to abort it halfway through – same face, same mind, same everything. Was he still on the same body or was it just an identical new one? Had he actually used up a whole incarnation out of vanity? Maybe if he’d let the change happen, become a brand new man, maybe he wouldn’t feel so empty and worn out.
He looked at his reflection, joylessly noticing all the wrinkles and scars he’d acquired over the years were gone. He looked brand new, or to be more accurate restored to factory settings. Everything he’d gone through was swept away like it might as well have never happened. It was tempting to just give up, stay inside the TARDIS than go outside and find something else to lose…
‘What?’ grunted the Doctor, finally dragged out of his reverie. He looked around the empty control room for the source of the noise. He completed a circuit and ended up looking down the ramp at the police box doors leading back to the outside universe.
A further four knocks on the other side of the doors.
‘What?’ the Time Lord called irritably.
And another four knocks.
Impatiently, the Doctor stormed down the ramp, grabbed the brass door handle and wrenched the door open to confront whoever it was banging on the exterior of the TARDIS. ‘What?’ he yelled, but in the middle of the syllable the anger faded to surprise and alarm then to silence.
‘Hello, sweetie,’ beamed River Song.
The Doctor regarded the archeologist warily for a moment, the woman from his own future who he had rather hoped he would meet in the right order following their encounter in the Library. Curiously, she looked a little older even though the Library hadn’t happened to her yet; her mass of golden curls were loose like a halo around her head and her eyes glinted with the same wicked smile on her lips.
Then he simply slammed the TARDIS door in her face.
Not far away, a burly grey-haired man in a grubby corporate suit sat at his desk in his office trying to ignore the voice of his secretary over the intercom. ‘Incoming call, sir.’
‘Who is it now?’
‘The Sycorax Delegate, sir.’
‘I'm not in.’
‘He seems to think you are.
‘That's all I need.’ Jalik was head of the trader’s guild in Silver City, an unofficial title that actually gave him an awful lot of authority and even more responsibility. He simply didn’t have the time to go mad with power, and he didn’t have the power to take a weekend off. But the lead up to the Final Incantation made the last fifty-eight years feel like a waste of diet spectrox enduring.
‘Put him on the screen...’
The circular holographic wall-display irised open to reveal the face of the delegate – or rather, the delegates horse-skull-compound-eye helmets which were actually far more aesthetically pleasing than creature’s true and hideous face.
‘Ah, such a nice day, what can I do for you?’ Jalik said brightly.
The Sycorax spoke in its aggressive, contemptuous language that Jalik had been forced to learn in order to communicate. ‘You can tell me if the shipment is on schedule!’ it growled in the guttural voice.
‘Certainly. In fact, your consignment has only just arrived. It is being transferred as we speak.’
‘I trust you have staved off any curiosity in the meantime.’
Jalik sighed and rubbed his aching forehead. ‘The whole point of the Final Incantation ceremony is that everyone knows about it. There’s no point with your and the rest of your clan chanting away on the surface if there’s no one there to watch! This is supposed to be a revolutionary business strategy!’
The Sycrorax shook its helmeted head. ‘Just deliver shipment to us now!’
The communication channel was shut down before Jalik could say a word.
‘I hate everything,’ he sighed to himself.
The Doctor strode up to the control console, beginning to flick switches and set controls to take off when suddenly there was the familiar creak of unoiled hinges. The doors were opening and River was striding into the TARDIS like she owned the place, barely reacting to the impossible interior. The décor seemed more important to her. ‘Ooh, nice and grungy,’ she remarked. ‘This is your bachelor’s pad phase, am I right? Some might say you need a woman’s touch around a TARDIS…’
The Time Lord took a deep breath and turned to face the woman. ‘Look, River, full disclosure – I don’t know who are,’ he told her. ‘Yes, you’re an archaeologist and apparently we’re as close as two coats of paint somewhere along the timestreams but right here, right now, you’re a hassle I don’t need.’
River tilted her head. ‘Oh, we both know that’s not true.’
‘No – we – don’t!’ the Doctor snapped, and pointed to the doors. ‘Out! Find your Doctor and maybe he’ll apologize and together you can go and give Joan of Arc a record deal with the voices in her head! I don’t want you here, I don’t want anyone, is that so hard to understand?’
River didn’t move, but she seemed to be taking him seriously. ‘What happened?’
‘Too much,’ the Doctor snapped, adjusting the controls so he didn’t have to look at her. ‘Too damn much. And it’s all meaningless to you, River, you’re from my future. It’s ancient history.’
‘I’d hardly be an archeologist if ancient history didn’t interest me, pretty boy,’ River replied, hangs on hips. ‘Honestly, I wait ages to meet this version of you and you’re in a sulk. I suppose this is too early with us for you to have a diary as well, then?’
‘Good guess,’ the Doctor retorted. ‘The exit hasn’t moved but oddly enough, neither have you.’
‘Nor you,’ River replied. ‘The TARDIS has been materialized for at least five hours,’ she went on, glancing at some of the displays she shouldn’t have been unable to understand, ‘and you haven’t so much as poked your nose out the front door. What happened?’
‘How is telling you going to help?’ the Doctor demanded.
‘I don’t know,’ she shrugged. ‘You haven’t told me yet.’
‘Maybe I’m secretive. Not so much fun when someone else is doing it, is it?’
River gave a predatory smile and drew closer. ‘Au contraire, sweetie. It’s exciting!’ Her expression softened. ‘You’ve just regenerated,’ she said, frowning. ‘I can smell it. That’s odd, I thought…’
‘Thought what?’ demanded the Doctor. ‘Your history of me isn’t as complete as you like?’
‘I just can’t for the life of me understand why you’re hanging around the TARDIS in brand spanking new DNA,’ said River with a shrug. ‘Fifteen hours of consequence-free fun you could be having and you’ve wasted it all in here, cooling down and hardening. Don’t worry, you’ll get your mojo back one day.’
‘Oh I don’t have to listen to this,’ scowled the Time Lord. ‘You – out!’
River purred and nuzzled his shoulder. ‘Make me,’ she challenged.
The Doctor shoved her off and stormed out of the TARDIS, snatching his overcoat from a wishbone-arch as he did so. As he stepped from the police box and shrugged on his coat, he let out a groan and closed his eyes. ‘And there I go, doing exactly what you wanted all along,’ he growled.
River followed him from the TARDIS. ‘Oh, I do love watching a man thinking. It’s like watching a Tythonian trying to play Kerplunk!’
Scowling, the Doctor grabbed the police box door and pulled it shut. A thought occurred to him. ‘Hang on,’ he murmured, ‘how did you get inside the TARDIS? I’d locked the doors and you don’t have a key!’
‘No, I don’t,’ she agreed cheerfully.
‘So how did you do it?’
The Doctor gazed at her expressionlessly. ‘Has anyone ever told you how irritating that is?’
River chuckled. ‘They never really stop,’ she smirked.
Trying not to let her improve his mood, the Doctor looked around. The TARDIS was on one of several ramps and walkways overlooking a repair yard for courier-size planet hoppers. A force-wall acted as a window looking out into space, and high above was the curve of a sand-coloured world.
‘Where are we?’ asked the Time Lord disinterestedly.
‘Silver City – it’s an old skybase from the first Earth Empire, customized as a waystation in geostationary orbit over the planet Voornek,’ replied River Song briskly.
‘Voornek,’ the Doctor said slowly, tasting the word. ‘And what are you doing here?’
‘I thought you weren’t interested,’ said River with a playful sulkiness.
‘True enough,’ said the Doctor coldly. ‘Fine, add that to the list of things you’re keeping from me.’
And with that, he set off towards the inner sectors of the space station.
River looked at him incredulously. ‘Where are you going?’
‘Away,’ was his dismissive reply. ‘Just leave me alone; forget I’m here!’
River sighed, but only her eyes gave a clue at the pain she felt. ‘Oh, sweetie, we both know that’s not an option,’ she murmured sadly to herself, and then set off in pursuit.
Tscheni looked at the meagre mixture of intoxicants in Jalik’s wall-fridge and came to the conclusion if she wanted a decent drink then she was just going to have to pay for it herself. Nonetheless, she flashed a pleasant smile at the trader’s guild leader. ‘It’s good to see you again,’ she said.
‘Lara’s put my repair yards to a lot of trouble, Tscheni,’ he grumbled, filling out paperwork.
‘We’ve already made it worth your while,’ she snapped impatiently.
‘The costs for man-hours will be coming out of your fee,’ Jalik retorted.
‘At the rate your engineers are going? We’ll be broke at this rate!’
Jalik felt a dim sadistic spark that might have been pleasure if he’d had the time and energy to enjoy it. ‘I assure you, they’re working as fast as they can.’
‘Lara could’ve fixed it herself by now!’ Tscheni scowled.
‘If she could have fixed it herself, you wouldn’t need our facilities. Listening to your complaints is not business or pleasure, Tscheni,’ Jalik snapped. ‘Why don’t you head down to the planet surface and watch the ceremony – entertain yourself until the Castro is fixed?’
Tscheni regarded the yellow-brown sphere through a porthole. ‘Something tells me anyone still down there when the Sycorax are done chanting will wish they weren’t,’ she murmured to herself.
Normally River Song would have loved a tour of the various less-than-salubrious quarters of Silver City, and she definitely would have chosen an establishment as cheap and ludicrous as The Bipolar Astro to stir up some trouble in. But that would have involved enjoying herself, and seeing the Doctor in such a state was not enjoyable. She’d seen the Doctor in different bodies and moods, but right now it seemed pain was the only thing keeping him upright. Thank goodness her parents weren’t there to see the Last of the Time Lords in such a state!
If only he knew who she was and just why she had to stay silent...
River shook her head. Their temporal foxtrot of a relationship was out of her hands, and his as well. But she could put the man she loved back on track, and any challenge that might end in a game of baby-oil Twister and a tickle fight was well worth her time and effort.
The Doctor was slumped by the bar, contemplating a disgustingly-gelatinous cocktail that looked like the barman was trying to clear out a grease-trap under the pretense of happy hour. There was no one else in the drinking den, and not just because today was the day of the Final Incantation.
River nimbly hopped onto the stool next to the Doctor and slapped down an obscene amount of local currency on the bar – currency she may or may not but actually had stolen from the wallets of her fellow crewmembers on the voyage to Silver City. She and her mother were good pickpockets, and she had always liked parting fools from their money. ‘Two Soul-Eaters please, barman,’ she said brightly. ‘One for me and one for my beautiful companion, the spiv in the brown coat.’
The Doctor’s eyes flickered in her direction, but he said nothing.
‘Please, don’t thank me, I’m naturally very generous,’ said River with exaggerated graciousness. ‘And I thought you looked like a man with a story to tell…’
‘River,’ he sighed. ‘Flow away.’
‘Ooh, what rapier wit,’ said River, knocking back her own cocktail. It seemed to confirm her grease-trap theory, but it still packed a hell of a punch. ‘Well, half a wit. Come on, sweetie, you’ve just regenerated, you know it’s bad to be alone during these formative moments.’
‘What do you know about regeneration?’ the Doctor grunted, stirring his cocktail with a straw.
‘Enough,’ was the singsong reply. ‘How’d it happen this time?’
‘Daleks. One of them got off a lucky shot.’
‘Bound to happen sooner or later,’ agreed River philosophically. ‘I bet he was Employee of the Month for taking down the Ka Faraq Gatri like that.’
‘Didn’t really take,’ the Doctor mused. ‘I had a handy biometrical receptacle to siphon off the regeneration blast, so I didn’t actually change, just reset my biodata.’
‘So you just healed yourself rather than transformed?’ River said, interested. ‘You know, that still counts as a regeneration even you didn’t change. They’re like holiday vacations, it doesn’t matter if you don’t go anywhere, they’re still used up…’
‘There’s no proof of that,’ the Doctor grumbled, but she was making a worrying amount of sense.
‘Since when did you have a biometrical receptacle of your own genetic code anyway?’
‘I had a spare severed hand.’
River almost spat out her drink. ‘You let someone cut your hand off?’ she laughed.
The Doctor waggled the fingers on his right hand. ‘It grew back. Christmas miracle. And I was in a sword-fight with a Sycorax at the time…’
‘A Sycorax? Well, well…’ River began, but didn’t get to finish.
The Doctor downed his cocktail and then the next. ‘Enough of this,’ he growled, feeling the alcohol burn in his throat. ‘It doesn’t matter if it was Sycorax or a Judoon or Mr. Punch! The hand’s gone, everyone who was there is gone, and I’m the only one left. Again.’
‘Your friends didn’t like the new you?’ River asked. ‘Can’t imagine why.’
‘They went their own ways.’
‘That’s how it works, sweetie. It’s never hit you this bad before.’
‘Oh, you really think you know me, don’t you?’ he sneered angrily.
‘I try not to fly in the face of public opinion,’ River said reasonably, ‘Doctor, so you’ve lost someone. Who hasn’t?’ she asked with a kindness that belied her words. ‘It’s what people are for! It’s not loss unless it hurts, and it never hurts unless it matters. You had someone that matters. And I know for a fact you’ve had quite a few people who matter, and will again.’
The Doctor took a deep breath. ‘No.’
‘No more,’ the Doctor said. ‘I’m done. I’m not going to keep on enduring all this just so one day our Wikipedia entries synchronize perfectly. Whatever future you’re offering, River, I’m not interested in it. You can keep your finger-snapping, army-scaring Doctor who sounds like a cross between God and the Fonz – the universe just got its last freebie from me!’
He turned and stormed out, coat tails flapping in anger.
River let her head loll back and moaned at the ceiling. ‘Oh you can be so high-maintenance sometimes!’
The first pioneers on Voornek hadn’t warmed to the planet; in fact, they’d only waited long enough to get over the shock and unimagined horror before high-tailing back home as fast as they could. Give or take the odd gibbering scream, they hadn’t said a word during their visit.
But that was long ago, a much less cynical and jaded age with more innocent people less hardened to the harshness of creation. Even so, the toughest space-dog had to brace themselves before looking out upon the surface of Voornek, an endless murky landscape filled with the bones of the dead. The entire planet was coated the skeletons of every species in the cosmos, seemingly ripped apart and delicately laid out in an intricate circuit pattern only discernable from space.
Bones from the tiniest mammals to the most gigantic of mega-fauna from countless planets in innumerable star systems had been built with painstaking care for unknown epochs. Whole species had evolved and gone extinct during that time, and their own remains had been added to the collage. There were walls of skulls packed together like eggs in cartons, towers of bleached spinal cords, walkways of ribcages framed with femurs and shin bones and other vertebrae…
On and on, from horizon to horizon, gray and dead and deafeningly silent. The motionless air was cold and dark and stale, and while breathable was completely free of any moisture or anything that could sustain life for very long. Yes, Voornek looked like Hell itself had overflowed into the real universe, but where money was made then people were able to shrug off their fears of titanic skeletons seemingly howling in agony about their own deaths. They rationalized it as perhaps a communal graveyard, or a killing field, or simple gave it no thought at all.
This was a place only the Sycorax could possibly be comfortable.
Well, that’s what they told people, anyway.
Out of the whole planet, only one particular area of the surface held any interest to the voodoo-obsessed scavengers – and, therefore, every hopeful entrepreneur investing in the Final Incantation ceremony. The particular patch of the sea of bleached bones was marked out by means of the massive interplanetary elevator connecting Voornek to Silver City high above; it resembled a length of crystalline intestine coiling down through the atmosphere towards a forest of dorsal bones and baleen-like combs that made a low harmonic moan of pain.
The waiting trio of helmeted warriors stood by a huge skull laced with the moaning comb of baleen, listening to the dirge-like tune as the consignment from Silver City arrived: it was a small coffin carried aloft by two Sycorax with due reverence to the occasion. Wasting no time, it was carried up to the towering bones of the titans and headed to the chosen place – which to the uncultured resembled the sinus cavity of one of the titans whose rib bones caged the narrowing canyon.
The coffin was open and the final bone – the femur of a baby giraffe of Old Earth – was lifted from its foam bed and plugged into the final slot of the shrine.
The Sycorax exchanged looks, bowed solemnly and began to chant.
The final incantation had begun.
The Doctor was a difficult man to follow when he didn’t want to be pursued. It was as much as River could do to keep him sight as he pulled every ruse in the book – he ducked into side alleys, retraced his steps out of shops once she’d followed him inside, joined a large crowd of people bustling along, often hiding behind some suitably-large object. River retaliated with her own tortuous series of twists and turns until she was sure the Doctor thought he had lost her.
Finally, they both ended up in one of Silver City’s notoriously-nameless dens of iniquity. The ill-lit tacky drinking hole made The Bipolar Astro look positively sophisticated in comparison. The Doctor went to the bar while other patrons on stools were sipping coloured drinks best left untasted. River was caught behind two hulking patrons arguing and her attention was caught by a small group playing poker and at least one of them was cheating – very badly.
The Doctor found a small table in a booth and River slinked in beside him. ‘Fancy meeting you here, sweetie – and I do,’ she added slyly. ‘Nice change of locale. This looks much more promising than the Bipolar Astro, not as bipolar as us, any roads. But here were can be bipolar somewhere bipolar. Or am I thinking of “jolly” rather than “bipolar”?’
Her beloved Time Lord was already rising to leave when the buxom waitress arrived – a very buxom waitress, whose bikini top boasted its own gravitational pull. ‘Want anything?’ the waitress offered in a husky Draconian accent, indicating the holo-menu on the table.
‘Oh, I’ll have a double Knabb special, please, with a Terran rum chaser. Make that a double too,’ said River with her most just-being-friendly of flirtatious smiles. ‘He’ll have some ginger beer with one of those little umbrellas – a double, of course.’ A glance at the menu showed the total price would come to eleven credits. ‘Keep the change,’ she said to the waitress, handing over a twenty that she had undoubtedly stolen from someone she’d bumped into on the way.
Stuffing the cash down her cleavage in a way that could only be described as endearing, the waitress wandered over to the bar to collect their drinks.
River glanced at the Doctor. ‘I thought you’d like me to pay, sweetie, given you’re expecting the universe to owe you a living from now on,’ she said pleasantly.
‘I know everything has its price,’ the Doctor grunted. ‘You want drinks, you pay for drinks, you get drinks. That’s fair. I get that. You want drinks, you pay for drinks, you get drinks and then the drinks are snatched away from you before you can enjoy them…’
‘Considering where the drinks are headed, that might be considered mercy.’
The Doctor stared sadly into the distance. ‘Yeah.’
‘So, if I follow the metaphor, you think you’ve had something taken away from you too soon,’ River said. ‘I would’ve thought you were too far along your regeneration cycle to have nerves – though, by the same token, I didn’t expect you to use up a change of vanity.’
‘Nice to know I’m still full of surprises,’ the Time Lord sighed.
‘You’ve never done it before,’ said River. The “or since” was pretty much implied.
‘Never had the chance before. I didn’t realize what the consequences would be.’
‘Pumping that much of the regenerative flux away from you was never going to be a precise or surgical amount.’ River frowned. ‘And since it is traditional that everyone gathers around you when you’re on the verge of the great divide… was someone caught in the outrush.’
The Doctor looked her, his glum expression so fixed his face might as well have been blank.
‘Now I understand,’ River said. ‘You came back to life and one of your friends paid the price…’
‘No, River, you do not understand!’ the Doctor snarled.
‘Don’t I? I’ve met you after this and…’
‘…and maybe I lied to you! Maybe I’ve always been lying to you! Maybe that’s what your whole life is, River Song, one big lie so one day, somewhere out there I’ll have a willing sacrifice on hand to save the day? You’re just a punchline, River – and no one cares what the joke is!’
River looked at him silently. ‘I want you to forget those words, Doctor. I want you to forget you said them, because otherwise there will come a time they will make the pain you’re feeling right now seem nothing.’
The Doctor regarded her. ‘Oh, have I guess who you are, have I?’ he said darkly. ‘Well, it doesn’t sound like I’d be doing you any favors letting it happen. I should change my life, do things differently, make sure that you and me never meet again. What have either of us got to show for it, huh? I barely know who you are – and I know how much that hurts you.’
‘It’s just the way we roll, my love,’ she said quietly.
The waitress returned with their drinks, then left again.
The Doctor contemplated his ginger beer sadly. ‘What makes you think that you and me would be a good idea, no matter what order it’s in? Eh?’
River was, for once, uncertain what to say.
The Doctor looked away again. ‘I’ve known plenty of people in the right sequence of events and it didn’t end well. It never ends well. As someone told me a little while ago, I’m not a good influence on people. I’m always running away so I don’t see the damage I do, turning ordinary people into living weapons, sacrificing themselves for what I say is right…’
River rolled her eyes and let out a gagging noise of disgust. ‘Oh, please. What repressed hypocritical crypto-fascist told you that? There is such a thing as free will, you know. Other people make choices, their decisions have consequences. Are you actually getting up in the morning thinking “Oh, a damsel in distress! I’ll turn them into an immoral killing machine?”’
‘No!’ said the Doctor, angry at the logic behind her point.
‘Well, it’s a shame,’ River sighed, examining her nails. ‘It might put a bit of a spring into your step. You’re such a misery guts nowadays. Do you really think you’re such a terrible man with no redeeming features? Or is this just an excuse for some self-pity and flagellation?’
‘Oh, accuse me of being on ego-trip!’ scowled the Doctor. ‘That’ll cheer me right up!’
‘Well, dear, why do you need cheering up?’ she asked and despite the casual note to her voice she was quite clearly very concerned over his response. ‘Enough guessing games. Just tell me outright – what’s hit you so hard?’
‘I lost my best friend,’ he said quietly.
‘Did she die?’ asked River, then cheekily added, ‘I am assuming it’s a she and not a robot dog this time?’
The Doctor’s desolate expression did not change. ‘Dead. Gone. But I did it, River. I was the one who ended her. It wasn’t a mistake or a lost opportunity or something I could have fixed. I killed my best friend.’ He finished his drink and rose to leave. ‘Believe me, River Song, you’re better off without me.’
‘If only the reverse were true,’ she muttered to herself. ‘If only.’
River set off after him again. By now, the den of iniquity had become rather heated with various punch-ups and brawls in progress. River did her best not to get involved, but managed a few discreet blows on a group of the more irritating brawlers as she left. It was only polite, after all.
The surface of Voornek was thick with nano-cameras and excitement.
The Sycorax were chanting. They stood in a nine-pointed star, representative of the nonagonal-shape of the universe, their arms spread wide, their helmets removed to reveal their broken bone and flesh faces. The noises from their mouths were too deep, yet too shrill to emerge from such beings, the sounds not synching up with the motions of their gulping maws – rather like an old, badly-dubbed foreign film.
None bar those in the ceremony were allowed on the planet, not that anyone wanted otherwise.
Each guttural syllable resonated with those before and after it, spewing out from each Sycoraxic to mingle and merge with the other chants. The dry air was beginning to tingle and pucker like a tight violin string being plucked. Random and inexplicable malfunctions plagued the nano-cameras as they struggled valiantly to record what was unfolding.
The chants started out as an ancient folk ballad of mischievous imps on a quest coming to a nasty end, how their friends and relatives wept over the loss for a year and a day and when they finally were able to accept their tragedy, the world had come to an end around them and only the mourners were unlucky enough to be alive. After that point the chants became less coherent, harder to follow, stories of flesh-eating predators and dying screams that lasted for days, of things kept in check by sleep and sanity finally breaking through… It was said not even the Sycorax understood and comprehended all the chants, and anyone who tried would go utterly insane trying.
It might have been true, but people said that about any songs they wanted to possess a deeper meaning.
The Sycorax continued their chanting, getting faster and louder until they were swaying on their might tree-like legs, the noise tearing out of their throats and surging into a hurricane. Around them, the landscape of dead bleached bones quivered and began to glisten with something that was not light.
The final incantation was well on its way.
A subharmonic pocket of energy burst against Silver City and it was a full 0.755 seconds before the inertial dampeners kicked in; at the same moment there was a massive photon burst in Voornek’s upper atmosphere. To those unaware of the cause, it seemed as though a massive flash of lightning and thunder clap had nearly knocked the space station out of orbit.
People cried out and yelled and complained and gossiped; new visitors and long-term residents alike turned their full attention to the screens showing the ceremony taking place on the surface to see what happened next. The screens showed various views of Sycorax convulsing silently, lost in static and interference. A commentator was making a vain attempt to explain what was happening, but the thunderclap had blown most of the sound systems.
The Doctor was circling up (or down, depending on your point of view) to one of the observation decks, where the shops, restaurants and hotels were all facing outwards to a view of the outside universe. The sandy-brown sphere of Voornek was flickering with silent electrical storms, the smudged white clouds beginning to fizzle and swirl like a pill dissolving in water. Atmospheric excitation wasn’t very complicated, but to do it on a planetary scale with psionic energy was impressive.
He wanted to be impressed. Or unimpressed. Or anything other than the aching, empty irritability he felt. Why was he watching this alone? Why wasn’t Donna there with him? Or Rose? Was that so much to ask? Hadn’t he saved enough people, done enough good to get that much of a reward? To simply feel happy again? It wasn’t even some kind of karma for what he’d done in the war, he’d been putting up with this frustrating loneliness all his lives. What was that Alexander the Great had said to him all those years ago – something about the point where death is preferable to life? At the time he’d thought the suave Grecian king had been wallowing in suicidal selfish self-pity; now he wasn’t sure he’d had a point.
The Doctor looked down at his brand-new old body. He’d had it a couple of days and he was already considering throwing it all away. In fairness, those couple of days had been utterly awful and…
‘Is it my turn to run away and this time you have to come and find me?’
The Doctor let out a sigh.
River leant provocatively against the railing beside him; mind you, she didn’t seem to do anything without posing for any photographers that might be passing. ‘I get the thrilling feeling that you’re telling lies, Doctor mine,’ she told him. ‘Not that I mind being lied to – a bit of mystery can spice things up – but lying to yourself? That’s a waste of time. And seriously, I don’t believe you would murder someone. I certainly don’t buy for an instant you’d do that to someone you cared that much about.’
‘More fool you,’ the Doctor grunted.
‘So, you regenerated. Someone you cared about got too close. That doesn’t count as murder. Collateral damage at worst.’ She held up a forestalling hand. ‘I know, I know. But causing the death of a friend is not the same as murdering them. Is it?’ River straightened up. ‘Now, what happened?’
The Doctor was too tired to argue. So he just told her, in a broken and exhausted monotone. ‘There was an instantaneous biological meta-crisis. The regeneration energy stored in the hand overloaded and swallowed her up. End result? Brand-new Doctor clone in a half-human body, and a full Time Lord consciousness in Donna Noble’s entirely-human brain…’
River’s eyes widened. ‘The odds of that…’
‘The odds were rigged.’
She didn’t press that. ‘A human brain with a Time Lord mind, pouring an ocean into a thimble. She wouldn’t have lasted an hour,’ she sighed. ‘If that. But what an hour…’
The Doctor felt a smile on his face, unbidden. ‘She was brilliant.’
‘It’s still not your fault,’ River insisted. ‘Regenerations are dangerous. These things happen.’
‘It wasn’t that,’ the Doctor said, watching a wave of lightning sheets pulling the atmosphere of Voornek into a vast cyclone. ‘I hoped she would be able to take it, to endure it… and when she started to burn up, I forced a neural block into her, to quarantine off the Time Lord part. Mind-rape.’ He rubbed his eyes. ‘To reinforce the barriers I had to nullify all the weak points.’
‘Everything she knew about Time Lords,’ guessed River. ‘Everything about you.’
‘Her mind, her thoughts, her emotions, everything was reset to before we met,’ the Doctor agreed. ‘Just a couple of years erased. Nothing too big.’
‘You saved her?’
‘She survived. Took her home and put her with her family before she woke up. Made sure they knew what was up and I went away.’ He sagged slightly. ‘And it’s more than that, River. It’s not just she forget me, she forgot herself. When we were together, Donna realized just how brilliant she was. How much she could do, how brave and clever she is. She said I made her better, and I think I did. And then I made her worse. I took away everything I gave her, everything I needed, even her family thought so. That version of Donna Noble is dead by my hand, River. I killed her in every way that matters.’
River was quiet. ‘You could have let her burn up, and kill her in every other way as well.’
‘Maybe I should have,’ the Doctor said bitterly.
‘Oh, and then you’d be strutting around this place like a speelsnape on heat, I suppose?’ River mocked. ‘If you’d handed a corpse back to her family and told them “Well, I could have saved her but then she’d have to find another way to unlock her potential, and that’s way too much trouble?”’ She shook her head. ‘You, Doctor, embarrass me. Thank the old gods and the new you grow out of it.’
She turned on her heel. The Doctor looked up sharply. ‘Where are you going?’ he asked surprised.
‘You expect me to hang around wallowing in self-loathing with you?’ she snapped. ‘It achieves nothing. It won’t bring Donna back, it won’t undo the past and you’re not even learning from your mistakes. You of all people should know how the paralysis of grief is the worst. You didn’t let the Time War stop you, you didn’t let exile or death or madness or hate make you like this. Maybe you should have changed completely – at least then you wouldn’t be wasting life like this.’
‘But that’s just it, River!’ the Doctor said, anguished. ‘I’ve been running on empty so long now. Every day, every moment, every second I have to keep myself trying to improve the future instead of dwelling on the past. But I’m so old now, so much to run away from, and so little to run towards. I’ve been around the whole universe twice, I’ve seen so much… Sometimes I think a Time Lord lives too long.’
‘Oh, get over it,’ snapped River. ‘You are not the only one who has suffered, you are not the only one who has lost things. If you had the slightest clue of who I am or how our lives have affected others. Promises broken, lives ruined, pasts murdered and forgotten… but it is worth it, Doctor. It has to be. You’ve saved so many, are loved and cared for. You are not judged by how the universe treats you, Doctor. When the day comes, when you ask for something back, you won’t be ignored.’
The Doctor looked at her, white-hot temptation in his eyes. ‘A beautiful lie,’ he surmised. ‘How can I trust anything you say, River? I thought… You’ve given me reasons, I grant you but…’
‘But what?’ demanded River with enough anger the other sightseers present decided to take their chances elsewhere in Silver City to watch the magic show. ‘What do you want to know, Doctor? Where we first meet? The first time I saw your face? When I introduced you to my family? My first trip in the TARDIS? It’d spoil all the surprises and one wrong for you and my timestream might collapse – I’d not have to suffer any of the pain I’ve endured, but it’s my pain and I won’t give it up for anything. Yes, Doctor, I know the man you’ll be one day. I’ve even got a fair idea of what will happen to this you very soon. Do you want me to tell you? The good things? The bad things? The boring bits? Did you flee from Gallifrey all those years ago to be told in minute detail how to live your life?’
The Doctor said nothing.
‘You will go on, Doctor. You will meet other people, you will have companions, you will love and you will be loved. You will do impossible things, save all sorts of peoples and worlds, bring happiness and joy and second chances. But only if you brace yourself for a hell of a lot of pain and fear and running. It’s the same life you’ve lived until today, the same costs, the same rewards.’ She stepped closer, her nose to his chin. ‘So, like I said, build a bridge and get over it.’
River Song turned and headed off.
The Doctor didn’t follow her.
The very fabric of Voornek was straining under the unleashed forces tearing at its molecular structure. The leader of the Sycorax strode into the centre of the ring of its fellows and bellowed a roar up into the turbulent energies tearing overhead.
‘This world is thin!’ it roared at the buckling sky. ‘The barriers are shifting, no longer what they once were! For behind reality lie those we do not see! Those we thought we knew, and they are there and they are real! They are watching! They have waited! And on this day, in this place, they will come! Those who lie behind sight, those hide in shadow, those who make no shadow, those who have all names yet no names, they know this world! They see! They are coming! We will not see them until we do and when we do, we must let them see!’ Its screams reached a fever pitch. ‘THEY HAVE ALWAYS BEEN HERE BUT NOW WE KNOW THEM – WE WILL SEE THEM AND THEY WILL SEE US!’
The final incantation was over.
The Doctor was heading back to where he’d left the TARDIS, paying no attention to thunder and lightning rocking Silver City. He similarly paid no heed to the sudden, abrupt end and he downright ignored the New Year’s Eve style station-wide celebration. Everyone was partying and dancing and cheering, just like on Earth when it was finally returned home; and just like that he was on his own.
He reached the outer hubs, and where most of the work in the repair yards had been replaced by impromptu revelries. An improvised band of rather odd-looking aliens that to the casual eye resembled a bunch of sentient sitars were cheerfully performing an advertising jingle that sounded rather like a bleaker verse of an Oompa-Loompa song.
One year closer! Another year’s past! All too soon, our bodies won’t last!
One year closer! Another year’s end! Cherish our family and cherish our friends!
One year closer! The time flies by! Fight the temptation to give up and cry, because it’s
One year closer! No one can hold on! We’ll all slip away and we’ll all be gone!
One year closer! It’s not too late! Embrace the knowledge of our shared fate!
One year closer until we’re all dust! Learn the truth from those you trust!
One year closer! But don’t feel dread! Here the living can meet the dead!
One year closer! Reap what you sew! Come one and all to the Bone Meadows!
Shaking his head in mild disbelief, the Doctor headed along the linking ramp to where the TARDIS had landed. River was standing outside the front doors, tracing a circle on one of the square panels; almost as if she expected to find the old St. John’s Ambulance badge some police boxes possessed. The Doctor was glad to find River there. If anything it saved him having to scour Silver City for her.
The Doctor leaned casually against his time machine. ‘Oi,’ he chided her gently. ‘This is my TARDIS. Go steal your own.’ His forced good humor faded. ‘I’m sorry for what I said. You’re right, I know you are. Maybe I should have let myself change. Right now it feels almost like I’m not really alive. Traumatized by those… what you call them?’
‘Near-death experiences?’ suggested River in a neutral tone.
‘There are other kinds?’ the Doctor gasped in mock surprise. ‘So, you want to stay here to see what’s going on down on Voornek? History in the making, so they say.’
River sighed. ‘Not the most fun-filled place I can think of – as if there aren’t enough planet-sized ossuaries in the galaxy. According to King Hydroflax’s official online biography, he killed each and every last one of the creatures down there and turned the whole planet into a dumping ground. The Bone Meadows, he called it. Just bluster, of course. He doesn’t leave bones behind.’
‘Sounds like a wonderful bloke,’ the Doctor agreed. ‘Can’t wait to run into him.’
‘Unless he runs into me first,’ River said, some of her good humor returning. ‘According to all the press releases, the Sycorax have turned the Bone Meadows into a gateway to the afterlife. Apparently it’s now one of only two places in all of time and space where god can be found. The Papal Mainframe’s already declared it a Class-III abomination.’
The Doctor shrugged. ‘Well, she’d know a thing or two about abominations.’ He idly looked at one of the pamphlets he’d picked up on the trip back to the TARDIS through his beloved brainy specs. ‘They’re even thinking of changing the name to something a little more tourist-friendly than Bone Meadows. There’s even a list of names the focus-groups have come up with. Memoriam Alpha, the Place of Serenity, the Wellspring of Forever…’
River groaned. ‘Oh, please. No wonder the universe in such a state nowadays!’
‘Out of that lot,’ the Doctor said, gazing at the list, ‘only one would get my vote.’
‘The Garden of the Dead.’
River arched an eyebrow. ‘That wouldn’t be because you know what gets chosen is it, sweetie?’
‘Molto bene!’ the Doctor laughed, shoving the pamphlet into his coat pocket. ‘Prerogative of a time traveler, though. I’ve been there before. Well, later…’
‘Yes,’ said River with a yawn. ‘You, Tegan, Nyssa and Turlough right before Terminus.’
‘How do you know that?’ the Doctor boggled, surprised she knew his past rather than his future.
‘Oh, the universe can be a very small place when you’re in love, pretty boy. I’ve actually bumped into quite a few of your other selves, before this one you know,’ she replied, indicating his current form.
‘I don’t remember you,’ the Time Lord replied, mind racing.
‘That’s the point,’ she smirked up at him. ‘I know which ones I’m allowed to talk to. Other times, you’d hardly know I was there.’
‘I find that hard to believe. You are many things, River, and subtle is not one of them.’
‘Oh, I never said I was subtle. I just made sure you never knew it was me. Remember the Terrible Zodin?’
The Doctor’s jaw dropped and he tore off his glasses to stare at her. ‘No! That was you?!’
River let out a delightful, musical laugh and then sagged as if in despair. ‘No,’ she admitted with sigh. ‘But it very well could have been. Anyway, first thing’s first.’
‘In that order?’
‘This time, yes. Let’s go down to the Bone Meadows and see them before they get tacky. There’s a queue already forming and I’m not willing to pay to stand in line with a TARDIS standing idle,’ said River briskly. ‘Come on, let’s skip ahead of the rest of the tourists.’
‘Why?’ asked the Doctor with notably tempered enthusiasm.
‘To talk with the dead, of course.’
The Doctor rolled his eyes. ‘Oh, please – don’t tell you believe in that Astorian Rite palaver! Those aren’t the spirits of the dead people are seeing down there, just crude avatars summoned out of the psycho-reactive dust when someone enters the telepathic field…’
‘The avatars allow the dead to talk, that’s the idea,’ River.
‘It’s not the dead, it’s a conjuring trick…’
‘That’s very closed-minded of you, sweetie. You’ve been declared dead more times than most messiahs.’
‘You know what I mean! Yes, there are all sorts of cul-de-sacs and astral planes living beings can end up in after the physical destruction of their bodies, but that isn’t death. Once you die, you stay that way. The point of no return might be a bit further away and people care to think, but once the line is crossed it stays crossed. For good.’
‘So, if you went down there,’ River said, toying with him, ‘nothing would happen?’
The Doctor stared at her, unblinkingly, for a long time. ‘You want me to talk to Donna.’
‘It’s the only way you’re going to be able to accept what happened and move on,’ River said gently. ‘Not even I know if it’ll work, though. Maybe you’re just really good at lying when you tell people you’re alright? Or maybe you took a chance…’
‘It won’t be Donna,’ the Doctor insisted. ‘It’d just be a… a snowman, made out of dust, to look like her! Not even a data-ghost! It wouldn’t be the real her!’
River frowned. ‘But it would be summoned out of your mind. And you must have known your best friend very well, so it would be a perfect impersonation, surely? Are you saying you didn’t know her?’
‘Well then,’ she said, folding her arms. ‘If she’s some idealized version of your imagination, she’ll tell you she happy with what happened. If she’s ripped out of your subconscious, she’ll damn you to hell. You’ve been blaming yourself and justifying it in equal measure, so what’s the problem?’
The Doctor looked at River, then the TARDIS. His voice was hushed, afraid. ‘What if it’s not my impression of her? What if it is her, or near enough? And she told me what she really thought? I wouldn’t even be able to pretend the right thing.’
‘Doctor,’ said River softly, stepping forward. ‘You only travel with certain people, only claim friendship with a select few. They have to be brave and bold and compassionate and forgiving. You can’t say this Donna was your best friend and that she wouldn’t give you a chance?’
The Doctor was silent.
River indicated the TARDIS. ‘Go on, down you go. I dare you.’
‘Well, I double-dare you,’ the Doctor retorted.
‘Well, I triple-dare you!’ River yelled back.
‘Well, I quadruple-dare you!’
‘Fine, I accept!’ River said and held out her hands. ‘Give me the keys!’
‘Oh no,’ said the Doctor, shaking his head. ‘My TARDIS! My rules!’ So saying, he unlocked the police box doors and ushered her inside before the confidence restored by this cheeky game failed him. If River saw the fear return in his eyes, she didn’t mention it.
A moment after the TARDIS doors shut, the roof-light began to flash and it dematerialized – the wheezing and groaning of its departure lost under another chorus from the various folk songs filling the repair yards.
The bones were turning to dust. Each of them, every last one, all at the same time in perfect unison. They cascaded into each other like sand, losing shape and definition until the world was a featureless desert – but it didn’t end there. The dust began to evaporate up into the sky, swirling up and up until there was nothing but an endless grey fog, coiling and undulating in perfect silence.
It reminded the Doctor of Davros testing his reality bomb on innocent humans from London, during those hours he thought he’d lost Donna and his TARDIS. But then, it seemed like everything in the universe was conspiring to remind him of that. He gritted his teeth and waited for it to be over.
And as the Doctor and River watched through the open doors of the TARDIS as everything eventually shifted, went white and then the glare drained away to be replaced by the dull brown-grey colours of before. A gentle swirling fog of endless static.
‘That’s it, then,’ said the Doctor gently. ‘We’ll be the first people in the Garden of Dead, before any of the folk from Silver City turn up to pay for the privilege. This is sneaking in without paying,’ he added. ‘A hideous abuse of my privileges as a wanderer in the fourth dimension.’
‘You’re a time traveler, pretty,’ sighed River. ‘If it really gets to you, just go back and pay in advance.’
The Doctor smiled, then took a deep breath and was about to step outside. ‘Are you coming too?’
River looked downcast. ‘Just between you and me, Doctor, I’m not a native of this time period. Everyone I knew and grew up with… well, they’re all dead by now. I have a feeling if I went out there the place would be overcrowded in seconds.’
The Doctor held her hand. ‘Please,’ he said, a soft monosyllable.
River sighed, took his hand and together they stepped out into the swirling dust. The air was dry and odorless, and despite all the particles flying about, there was no risk of inhaling them. There was the faintest static prickle as they bounced off the two time travelers and the TARDIS.
Ahead of them, the fog began to thicken, solidifying into a strange elongated shape that rapidly resolved into the outlines of a man and a woman. River’s eyes widened. ‘I’m sorry, Doctor, please, but I can’t do this,’ she said, letting go of her beloved’s hand and running back to the TARDIS without another glance.
The Doctor looked at her run, for the first time seeing her genuinely afraid. He turned back to the ghostly figures in the fog – for a moment he made out a girl with long red hair and longer legs holding hands with a tousle-haired boy with a big nose and then it was just dust in the breeze once more. He couldn’t even be sure he’d seen anything, really.
And then the fog thickened again and he was looking at another woman, also with long red hair. She wore a long brown leather coat, her hands in her pockets in a casual pose. More dust swirled closer, like iron filings drawn by a magnet, getting more detailed and intricate – and suddenly he was looking at Donna Noble, identical in every way to when he’d last seen her in the TARDIS.
She spoke. There was a faint hiss of shifting sands to her voice, but in all other respects it was a perfect simulation of the temp from Chiswick. ‘Hey, Spaceman,’ she said, seemingly too tired and annoyed to put much affection into her nickname for him.
The Doctor suddenly felt exhausted. ‘Hey,’ he replied. ‘This place really does—’
The ghost interrupted him. ‘You killed me,’ she said bluntly. ‘I mean, that’s today’s headline isn’t it? You killed me and you’re here to ask me to forgive you.’
‘Yeah.’ The Doctor’s face was expressionless. ‘Do you think I killed you?’
‘What else would you call it?’
‘Saving you,’ he countered.
Donna arched her eyebrows in comical surprise. ‘Oh, how’d you work that out then? Is it my body’s still alive like all those poor sad-sacks you see in comas in hospital? Is it like giving someone a lobotomy they didn’t even actually ask for? If you wanna convince me it was the right thing to do, you’re gonna have to do a hell of a lot better than that, skinny boy!’
‘It’s not like that. You know it…’
‘I know it? I’m not even sure I’m real! What I am sure is that if I was real, you just burnt me out of my head and gave Gramps the leftovers!’ She was shouting now. ‘That wasn’t me, was it, Doctor? That wasn’t Donna Noble! Not even close!’
The Doctor forced himself to continue. ‘It was how you were!’
‘Before I met you,’ she said, slightly quieter and kinder. ‘How is that any better than being dead?’
‘How can it be worse? You were brilliant, Donna, you still are! Rose showed us a universe you never met me and you were still amazing! All that potential, that compassion, that brilliance, was always there to start with! It didn’t need me or the Trickster or Dalek Caan, it was there already! You did it before without me, and you can do it again – but only if you were alive.’
Donna’s green eyes were angry. ‘I didn’t want to go back.’
‘And I didn’t want it either. But did you want to die? Did you want me to watch you burn? Make your grandfather weep over your corpse?’ He took a step forward. ‘The most important woman in creation, making everyone else suffer? That’s not you. That’s not the Doctor-Donna. You care too much to deliberately hurt people.’
Donna gave a small, sad laugh. ‘Tell that to Nerice,’ she muttered.
‘Yeah, your go-to-name for everyone you hate and everyone you like,’ the Doctor reflected. ‘I don’t think she’d want you to die. I didn’t want you to die. I begged the Daleks to spare you, I was willing to throw myself into their guns. The same way you stood up against the Rachnoss and her roboforms. Did you really want to die, Donna Noble? Was it so important not to feel inferior you’d break the hearts of everyone you care about and go out in a blaze of glory? Taking the easy way out?’
‘Then why did I tell you not to?’ she demanded, folding her arms.
The Doctor was silent for a long time.
‘Because you weren’t worried about going back,’ he said at last. ‘It wasn’t you didn’t want to go. No way would you have let me get that close to you, knowing what I was going to do. You’d have smacked me across the room. You weren’t worried about the mind-wipe…’
‘I was worried about you,’ completed Donna. ‘On your own. No one left to look after you.’
‘Oh, there’ll be someone else,’ said the Doctor, trying to smile. ‘You know me, I can’t get two steps before I trip over someone who needs me around. And in the meantime, I’ve got River Song to get me into trouble and drop spoilers about…’ He trailed off, unable to hide the pain. ‘They’re all gone, Donna. Everyone since the war, gone their own way, living their own lives. It breaks my hearts, Donna, but at least I know they’re out there. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but I can’t live in a universe you died because of me. I’ve lost too many friends, too many people I loved. Even if I didn’t sacrifice them like Davros said, they’re still gone and never coming back. I can’t even pretend… I couldn’t let you die.’
‘But I did. Everything we did, everything I saw, and touched and learned. It’s all gone.’
‘They still happened! That’s what matters! You lived and you died, and you got a second chance – just like me. Thanks to Caan, that Dalek triggered the regeneration process to save me and create you. The only difference is I remember and you don’t.’
‘And you’re living the same old life!’ Donna accused. ‘A lonely old git in a police box with no one to stop you going down the deep end – and I’m some stupid bint in Chiswick with nothing but my cow of a mother to make life even worse! Is that your idea of a good deal?’
‘No,’ said the Doctor instantly. ‘But it was that or nothing. If it was the other way round, if it was me burning up in the TARDIS and that was the only way to save me, what would you do, Donna Noble? What would you do? Would you choose to let me die rather than let me live?’
Donna was silent.
‘I worry about you,’ she said eventually. ‘I’m worried you’re going to lose it if you don’t have someone else. I know Rose is gone for good, and all the others are busy… but you can’t be on your own. It doesn’t matter if your hearts get broken again, coz at least that means they were fixed some time. Promise me you won’t be alone, if anything we ever did matters.’
‘I promise,’ said the Doctor softly.
Donna shrugged, her hands still in her pockets. ‘Guess that’s that then, huh?’
He smiled sadly. ‘Yeah, guess so. Closure. My conscience is a bit clearer. I know I did the only thing I could, and that’s all the consolation either of us are going to get.’
‘Pretty much. See you on the flipside, Spaceman.’
‘If I’m lucky,’ the Doctor agreed, remembering the first time they met. ‘Onwards?’
Donna nodded, her green eyes gleaming with adventure one last time. ‘Onwards!’
And then she was gone, and the Doctor was standing in the dust alone.
‘It’s odd, isn’t it?’ asked River, speaking as though they were in the middle of a conversation. ‘We always choose to think of those we lose with sorrow because they’re gone, rather than with joy that they were ever there.’
The Doctor was walking up the ramp towards her, looking nonchalant and preoccupied to the outside world. ‘Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened?’ he surmised in a neutral voice.
The archaeologist smiled at him. ‘If you like,’ she said. ‘Unless there’s a different approach that works?’
The Doctor shook his head wearily. He didn’t feel so utterly broken and dejected any more, he just felt tired – a bone-deep tiredness that reminded him he was still fresh from his regeneration. He still had another lifetime ahead of him and maybe, after some proper rest, he could enjoy it. ‘So, River Song – seriously, who would name their kind River Song? Anyway, can I give you a lift anywhere?’
River adopted a look of comical concentration. ‘As a matter of fact, I do need a ride back to campus.’ She skipped past the Doctor over to the console. ‘Shall I drive?’ she offered cheekily.
The Doctor jogged up onto the dais. ‘No, no, wait…’ he began.
It was no use; River was already setting the coordinates. She moved with such confidence around the controls that the Doctor might have felt envious; but it just reminded him of the Doctor-Donna flipping switches the same way. River looked up from the instruments and saw the pain on his face.
‘Please…’ he said.
‘All right, sweetie,’ River said, hands raised, ‘I’ve already done the hard stuff. You can press start and stop as and when appropriate.’
‘Is there any point in asking where you learned to pilot a TARDIS?’
‘You’re just going to say “spoilers”, aren’t you?’
‘Yes. But it suits my dulcet tones so well, so they say.’
The Doctor rolled his eyes. ‘Who says?’
River’s wicked smile returned. ‘You do, of course.’
‘Ask a stupid question,’ he sighed, and slammed down the dematerialization lever.
There was the faintest of shudders and the time rotor within the central column started to pump up and down with surprising smoothness. Even the grinding of the engines seemed smoother and more efficient and after a few seconds of flight the time machine shuddered again and came to rest. There was no doubt about it: River Song knew how to fly the TARDIS all right.
‘You know,’ said the Doctor conversationally, ‘you could hang around. I’ve got a spare room.’
River looked at him appraisingly. ‘Sorry, sweetie,’ she told him sadly. ‘Maybe when you’re older. When we know a bit more about each other and can enjoy the ride a bit more.’
‘That’s it? No hints? No previews? No Delphic predictions?’
River shook her head. ‘You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.’
‘Spoilers. But I will say this – Christmas is great for taking your mind off your troubles.’
With that, she strode out the doors and they swung shut behind her.
The Doctor looked at the closed doors, half-hoping she’d run back inside, then resignedly set the TARDIS in motion once again. It was noticeably more bumpy this time. As he circled the console, considering the various Christmases that might be worth visiting, the scanner display let out an alarming beep. ‘What?’ he sighed, pulling the screen towards him. He gazed at the spinning symbols, then frowned. ‘What?’ he cried in a louder voice, leaning in close to stare at the information the TARDIS was relaying. ‘What?!’ He sensed movement behind him and whirled around to see two Cybermen rearing up out of the shadows.
And even as he saw them, they faded away like ghosts leaving him looking at an empty patch of wall.
‘What?’ he said flatly, then turned to see the two Cybermen were standing on the other side of the console, at the top of the ramp leading to the outer doors. They were failing slowly, as if they were falling and as the Doctor took a step forward, they faded away again. Then one reappeared by the wooden police box doors, then that disappeared again.
The Doctor was left alone once more. For a second he considered the bizarre interlude, as if two Cybermen had been floating from right to left and had passed clean through the walls of the TARDIS as it moved in the opposite direction. ‘Falling through the vortex?’ he whispered, continuing his train of thought aloud. ‘But heading for where?’
The Time Lord turned back to the console and started throwing levers, pressing buttons and flicking switches as he feverishly tried to lock onto the Cybermen’s space-time trail. The time machine lurched, shook and then came to a halt with a shudder. Without a second thought, the Doctor hurled himself out the doors and found himself running into a snow-covered street market bustling with vendors, cocky lads, working girls, crones, braziers, beggars in doorways…
He was in a working-class area of Victorian London, the smoky air full of the smell of hot chestnuts and nearby a choir was enthusiastically belting out God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. The Doctor began to relax, the colourful hustle and bustle soaking into him and for the moment the pain he’d gone through and the inevitable Cyber-mayhem to follow was forgotten.
It seemed he’d made it to Christmas after all.
NEXT TIME: THE NEXT DOCTOR