THE HAND OF OMEGA
It was dark on the other side. Dark, and cold. The darkness was unending and there was nothing at all to ease the cold; except for the simple fact that such concepts did not exist there. There was no such thing as either dark or cold; but there was nothing beyond them. They were all, they were everything; and yet they were nothing.
He stirred awkwardly in the void, moving what had once been his limbs, struggling to open what had once been his eyes; but where nothingness alone existed, movement was little more than a state of mind. The emptiness hurt, but he could not believe in the pain, for his mind would not accept that it existed. He existed; and he alone. He was alive, and he had to believe that; yet how could he believe it, when he was in a world where nothing at all could possibly exist? The strong sense of certainty which had once kept him alive was gone. It had been taken from him, and with it the world he had built for himself; the existence, the reality, the single undying hope. All was gone, and had been left behind in that other place; the place that he barely remembered. There had been life in that place, he thought. Life and existence. There had been warmth and love and pain and death and fear and happiness and everything. There had been everything. He was tired of being nowhere, lost in nothingness, adrift in no time. He wanted to go home.
With an effort that might have been superhuman, or which might have been the barest of movements, he turned his mind towards that last thought; towards what he remembered as home. It was a universe. Beyond that it was a galaxy, a star system, a simple constellation that marked his goal. It was a planet. It was a planet that he thought he might have played on once, when he was a boy. Had he ever been a boy? Surely to have been a child he would have to have been alive. A flash of what he thought was a memory floated into what might have been his brain; had he had enough form, enough presence to have possessed such an organ. A red balloon, filled with some substance that was lighter than air; a gas. The balloon had risen in a summer breeze, far, far up into the air. He had watched it go. He had stared up as it flew higher and higher into the sky, and he had smiled. He saw it now, drifting finally out of sight beyond the clouds. He had never seen it again, and yet he could see it now. He smiled, and reached out a non-existent hand to grasp the non-existent string. He thought that he could feel it, running between his fingers.
"Life... I had life." He could not speak the words, for he had no mouth, no tongue, no vocal cords; but he could think them, for if nothing else he had a mind. He had thoughts in abundance. Somebody had once said something... I think therefore I am. He remembered the words, but he did not remember whose they were. He loved them. They were proof of the life that he had, of sorts; the existence that he had clung to for so long. For lonely, silent eternities he had waited there, in the vast emptiness, with nothing but that basic philosophy to cling to; but now he had something else to hold as well. He had a balloon. A small, red balloon that did not exist. It was small enough to fit into his hand, but it was big enough to swallow planets, or galaxies; perhaps even entire universes. But there was only one that he cared about. In all of the existence he thought that he remembered, there was only one galaxy - one planet - that really mattered. Maybe... maybe there was only one man. Man... He had been a man once. He had been... He smiled again. Yes. He had been a man. He had been a lord; a Time Lord. He had been Omega. A laugh spread through his mind. That was it, yes. He had been Omega. More than that - he was Omega. That was his name, his past, his memory. It was his future.
"I am Omega." The words sounded lonely; or perhaps they did not sound at all. It didn't matter. He was remembering. He was being. The image of that planet grew in his mind, and with it was the image of a man. Not just a man; another Time Lord. One particular Time Lord, in all of the universes, in all of the Timezones, in all of everything. One man, who was at the centre of all of this. Omega closed the eyes that he did not have, and released the red balloon that was not really there. He had remembered, and he was not going to forget again. He was going back. He didn't know how, and he wasn't entirely sure why; but he had let the red balloon go, and he was watching it once more as it drifted away. He could feel the summer breeze again, and see the great blue sky. He could see the balloon, heading off on its grand adventure, just as it had done so all those infinite aeons ago when he had been a child; but this time, he was going to follow it.
"Professor? Professor are you there?" Wandering along the corridor with the usual sense of trepidation that she felt when venturing off the beaten track, Ace called again. "Professor? I said--"
"I heard you the first time Ace. And of course I'm here. Where else would I be?" He appeared out of a door directly behind her, glanced at her in surprise as she jumped at his sudden arrival, then hurried away down the corridor. She sighed and hurried after him. He looked oddly flustered, which might have worried her at one time; but she was used to it by now. The Doctor always seemed to be in a hurry, always worried by something. Everything was to be done briskly and without a fuss; and the only times when he did not appear worried or flustered were usually the times when everybody else was in a blind panic. He looked even more hurried than usual as she followed him at a quick pace towards the console room, and she could almost have believed that he had only just stumbled out of bed; if she could be sure that he ever slept at all. She had seen him exhausted, and she had seen him unconscious - but never had she seen him truly asleep.
"What seems to be the problem?" He held the door open for her, allowing her to walk ahead of him into the console room. Instantly at home in the large, white room with its dominant control structure, the flustered haste seemed to have ebbed from his body. His soft Scottish burr - the one that nobody, particularly him, seemed able to account for - gave his voice an added hint of relaxation and gentle ease. He was smiling at her, in that oddly paternal way that she had come to value so much. It meant a lot to her that he could consider her to be so special, when he cared for the entire universe as though it were his only child.
"The time rotor. It stuck, and then it seemed to start moving backwards. It was going down when it should have been going up, and--" She frowned. "At least, I think it was. It looked wrong anyway. I tried hitting it, but it didn't seem to make any difference."
"Hitting it isn't going to do any good." He sounded vaguely incensed, but she had seen him hit the control panel on more than one occasion. Usually he liked to do it when he thought that he was alone, or that she wasn't looking, but it all seemed to be a part of the uneasy alliance between the odd little Time Lord and his all-too-lively little craft. He sighed. "Probably a problem with the co-ordinates that I laid in. We might be in for a patch of turbulence."
"Air pockets?" She knew that the term was wrong, and said it largely in order to make him frown at her, in that strangely endearing fashion. He sighed.
"Yeah, I know. Hand you the cosmic wrench and the celestial spanners." She grinned in good-natured mockery, and stood back to allow him to climb beneath the console. "What's up then? Are we going to hurtle backwards in Time to our certain doom?"
"Not this morning, no." He fiddled with something that she could not see, and then shifted his position awkwardly. His head banged sharply against the bottom of the console, and the flickering lights above slipped back into their usual rhythmical patterns. Ace grinned.
"Nice work, Professor."
"Don't mention it." He stood up, frowning at the console. "Interesting..."
"In what way?"
"In every way." He lapsed into silence, causing her to tap her foot in impatience for several seconds, waiting for him to finally get around to explaining things. "Something seems to have caused us to slip out of alignment with..." His voice trailed off. "Hmm."
"I'll go and put the tea on shall I?" She glared at his back, daring him to say yes. Instead there was no answer at all. "Er... Professor? Remember me? Your co-pilot." It was rather a grand term, she thought, for someone whose main job was to try to keep the Doctor out of trouble, whilst invariably succeeding only in helping him deeper into it. Such words hardly made a snappy job description though, and she preferred that of co-pilot. It was nearly true, after all. She could operate the door switch with as much confidence as a true Time Noble, and lately she had become rather adept at pressing some of the multitudinous flashing and brightly coloured buttons with which the console was festooned. She didn't really know what most of them did; but then the Doctor didn't really seem to know either. She had her doubts that even the TARDIS knew what all of its switches did; but then, since it seemed to switch them around on almost a daily basis, clearly it didn't much care.
"Hmm? Oh, Ace. No thankyou, no tea for me." He straightened up, hands in his pockets, frowning at the console. "Do you know, I think we're caught in a whirlpool."
"A whirlpool?" His lack of concern was almost sweet. "But we're travelling through the Matrix. Aren't we?"
"Yes." He shrugged. "I know. It's interesting isn't it."
"Fascinating." She tried to keep the vexation from her voice. "Er, Professor... aren't whirlpools dangerous? A friend of mine got caught in one once when we were kids, and he nearly drowned."
"Quite, quite." He stood in silence for a few seconds longer. "The question is, of course, what a whirlpool thinks it's doing in the middle of the Matrix. It's quite against the laws of physics, you know." He smiled, his expression suddenly bright and cheerful. "Still, anomalies are what makes the universe go round, so to speak."
"Aren't they just." She watched him as he pressed a series of switches, tapping out new rhythms of his own upon the control pads and computer keyboards. "So what's the procedure when confronted with a whirlpool? Do we shout for the lifeguard?"
"Not exactly, no." He smiled at her, that gently paternal smile again which she loved so much. It was the smile that made her feel safe and warm, as though she were truly at home; even though she was currently in a runaway spacecraft trapped in some sort of impossible scientific contradiction. "I think I can rematerialise us, which should bring us out of the disturbance." He peered a little closer at the screen before him. "Nearest planet is Earth, if that's okay with you."
"Do I have a choice?"
He smiled again. "Not really, no." He pressed a few more switches, and the TARDIS shook violently. "Oops."
"Whereabouts on Earth are we landing?"
"I'm not sure yet. It's rather a haphazard procedure I'm afraid. I'm not even sure about the Timezone yet." He wrestled with a small lever that did not want to seem to move. "Ah ha! Success!"
"Oh good." She watched nervously as the rotor slowed to a juddering halt, then stood back to look expectantly at the monitor screen. Even when arriving on her home planet, there was a certain sense of apprehension when they landed. The TARDIS had an uncanny ability to land them in the middle of wars, or tottering precariously on crumbling cliff edges; but all that she saw was a street, stretching out before her in the way that streets did, dimmed by the half-glow of twilight.
"Well, we're safe here." The Doctor opened the door without hesitation, striding out into the odd little street. The road was cobbled, the pavements overhung by houses that almost met in the middle. They were white, framed with criss-crossing black beams, and bore strange little leaded windows patterned by a diamond-shaped framework. The wooden doors were unpainted, and unvarnished, and they stood no more than a foot in distance from the shallow gutter than ran down the side of the road. Half remembered history lessons floated into Ace's mind, and she decided that she did not want to know what floated down that innocent looking channel.
"When is this? This is pre-Industrial Age, right?" His eyebrows raised, and she grinned. "I did go to school once, Professor."
"I know, I know." He smiled. "Actually it could be just about any time, really; somewhere between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries I imagine. Not the most inspiring of times, but certainly not the worst."
"It sure beats the prehistoric period." She strolled away, peering through shop windows with their minimal displays of goods, and their hygiene standards that would have given a heart attack to any twentieth century health inspector. A small alley led her to another street, and her step slowed. "Er... Professor?"
"What?" He joined her, looking about with a mixture of surprise and delight. "Well I'll be..."
"What is this?"
"Why we're in some kind of a model village, Ace." He led her out into the next street. It was clearly twentieth century, with large boards on the walls advertising Lux soap and Bisto gravy. A car was parked by the side of a small, pre-fabricated house, and Ace ran her hands over the large front section. A newspaper lay on the dashboard, and she read the date aloud.
"21st September, 1951. Cool."
"Look at this." The Doctor had stepped up to a shop window, and was peering inside. Waxwork models of a small family were gathered around a table. A stylised father figure, dressed in a brown suit, was at the head of the table, with a typically fifties pair of small children seated one on either side of him. A girl of about twelve was wearing a printed floral dress, a ribbon tied decorously about her hair. A smaller boy wearing an open necked shirt was reaching for a bottle of tomato sauce. The label was quaintly old fashioned, and clearly free of nutritional information and gaudy marketing designs.
"Somebody has put a lot of effort into this." Ace looked over at the radio in the corner of the room, and also at the collection of children's books on a nearby chair. Not an item was out of place or even slightly anachronistic. It was evidently a big project in somebody's life.
"Probably some kind of tourist attraction." They wandered on together, enjoying the silence and the solitude. Clearly wherever the display was - if indeed it was a display - they had arrived after closing hours, for there was not a living soul in sight. They strolled down a road made to appear Victorian in every detail, and from there into another street, where long-haired waxworks posed together, wearing flares and flowered shirts.
"Groovy." With a faint chuckle, Ace posed next to one of the figures. "How do I look?"
"Out of place." He smiled, hanging his umbrella on the lifeless hand of the nearest waxwork. "Here, hold this a moment would you old chap?"
"I love this place. It is so cool." Ace was striding on ahead. "It must be massive. This road goes on forever, and there are hundreds of others. I can see crossroads everywhere." She glanced up at the sky. "I wonder where it is? I'm sure there was nothing like this when I left Earth. A few small-scale places, sure, but nothing outside."
"I'm certainly not familiar with it." He gave a light shrug. "Would you like to find a slice of your own time?"
"Would I." She laughed. "I've never really felt nostalgic before, but this is all so real. It's like any part of this could come to life, and we could get swept up in a bit of real history. I've done a lot of travelling about with you, Professor, but we've never really looked into the past all that much."
"Would you like to?" He joined her at the window of a clothes store, smiling at the assortment of outlandish clothing displayed inside. A pair of bright red flared corduroys hung on one mannequin, topped with a white shirt covered in embroidered birds and flowers. The detail suggested that the clothing was real, either kept in beautiful condition by some dedicated collector, or made new especially for the benefit of the tourists. He was impressed.
"Yeah, I'd like that. Some decade I've never been to before. Maybe a whole new century." She headed back to the waxwork that was holding the Doctor's umbrella, and retrieved the object. "Somewhere--"
"Somewhere...?" he asked her, surprised by the abrupt way in which her sentence had been brought to an end. She had frozen, and was standing stiffly in the middle of the pavement, the umbrella held loosely in a failing grip. Even as he watched her it fell from her hands, rolling onto the road with a dull thud. "Ace?"
"Professor..." She took a step away from the waxwork, staring at it with widening eyes. "Professor, that statue is warm. It has a pulse."
"Don't be silly, Ace." He walked towards her, faintly disturbed. He knew that she was not given to wild feats of imagination, but to suggest that a waxwork might have a pulse was somewhere beyond the ridiculous. She came to life again as he reached her, and gave the statue a hefty shove.
"Who do you think you are? Is this some kind of a stupid joke?" The statue wobbled, moving stiffly, but did not tilt far enough to fall. The Doctor caught it to still its vibrations, setting it carefully back into its original position.
"Ace, take it easy. It's just a statue."
"Feel its wrist, Professor." Ace still sounded angry, as though annoyed at some attempt to make her appear a fool. He smiled, reaching for the statue's arm, and let his fingers find their way to the wrist. They found it with casual ease, born of long practice, reacting with distaste to the strangely warm feel of the 'skin'. There was still no response from the statue itself, and its blank, expressionless face stared on. The Doctor's sensitive fingertips felt the gentle, rhythmical beat of the pulse, faint but steady, and the slightest touch of a frown found its way across his face.
"See?" Ace sounded confrontational, annoyed that he had needed proof to support her. He made no comment.
"I don't understand..." Abandoning her beside the curious waxwork, he dashed to the next one, reaching for its wrist with almost unwilling hands. There was a pulse there too, its rhythm soft against his fingertips, almost in tandem with his own twin beats that were now so much louder than was their norm.
"Professor?" Ace was standing beside him, her face pale. She was reaching her own conclusions as quickly as he was reaching his, and he felt her unease, her confusion, her fear. He turned to look at her.
"These aren't statues Ace. And this isn't any tourist attraction." He stared up at the sky, where a large, dark cloud was moving into place to block out the moon. "This is a city. A real city. And somebody has turned it into their own private museum."
He was drifting still, but the drifting was no longer meaningless. He had discovered direction, and focus, and he had discovered the Hole. He did not know if it was the same black hole through which he had once travelled. He did not care. He only knew that he could reach through it, stretching his mind through the vast blackness that now surrounded it, projecting thought and self through the infinite reaches of the universe beyond his prison. He found planets, which fed his new desire to see, to know, to learn; but he could not touch, and he could not be seen. He could not speak, or feel or taste. His frustration grew, and he pushed himself further, finding new limits to his reach; still searching for that one planet, that one solar system. He had no idea where it lay in relation to his current position. He had no idea if he even had a current position. All that he knew was that there was a system named Kasteroborous, and that it was the place he had to find. Beyond it lay Gallifrey, and there was his home. He remembered it now; could see the white walls and the sheltered windows. He could remember the smell of the flowers that grew up the walls in the summer, and could hear the sound of the birds singing in the meadows nearby. It was far removed from the city where he had grown up; the place that he had escaped from so often as a child. He had been so unassuming then, in the days when life had been new to him. He had had plans and ambitions, but no notion of the grandiose limitlessness of his future. To have been the man to harness the powers of the black hole; to have been the man to bring Time Travel to fruition. To have been the man abandoned by his race forever.
"Not forever..." He tried to think the thought aloud, but there was no way to make it so. Instead a new picture drifted into his mind. A man - or was it four men? He thought that there were four of them, but the four were only one. There was the old one with the silky white hair; the one who had not been present when the others had come to him. There had been the small man with the dark hair and the ridiculously clownish appearance, with his taller, white-haired companion in the clothes of a dandy. He had touched them. He was sure that they had been here, in his prison of nothingness, and that they had touched him. He had had form then; or at least there had been the illusion of it. He remembered the fourth man. He had been the same as the others, but he had not been with them. They had been separate, and yet they were together. The fourth man had been so young, so perfect - perfect for what? Omega remembered. He had duplicated the body. He had taken it for himself, with its blond hair and its bright, innocent eyes. He had taken the body and had set out to see the universe afresh. His universe. His realm. He should be there now, ruling it in its entirety, watching over it, standing at the doorway to all of space, all of Time, but--
His thoughts broke apart and he lay back, staring through his black hole to watch that other universe float by. The place that he wanted to be a part of again. Of course. He had taken the body, and he had tried to start out in his new life; but something had failed, and he had begun to lose his form, his body, his very self. The man... the young man, with the blond hair... he had given him a choice. Ha! To think that he, one lone Time Lord, a mere child compared to the great Omega, could presume to hold any power over the greatest of his kind. But he had offered the deal nonetheless. He had asked whether Omega preferred to be sent back to his antimatter domain, or whether he would rather be obliterated; destroyed forever. Omega had wanted to destroy all, but the Doctor had not allowed it. Instead he had fired the weapon - the strange device in his arms - and he had sent his foe back to the limitless, empty void that was his prison.
"The Doctor." It was a clear thought in Omega's mind now, and with the name came new strength. The Doctor was his enemy. The Doctor was the man responsible for his pain, his suffering, his loss. It was the Doctor who had taken freedom from him, and sent him back to suffer in the endless nothingness that was his curse. He hated the Doctor. Hate was an emotion, and he had not felt emotions in a long time. It flowed through him now, filling him with the new illusion of body, of soul. He let it come, and allowed it to engulf him. Hate. He was hate. He lived for hate. At last, after so long, he was alive again. He might not have a body, but he had hate - and that was enough to keep him focussed. He turned once again to his black hole, and gazed on into the unattainable world beyond his prison boundaries. There had been a planet. Not Gallifrey, but somewhere else. Some other world, which meant as much if not more to the Doctor than did his own home. Earth. It came to him in a flash of inspiration born of the need for revenge, and allowed his mind to journey on into that other place beyond the Hole. He had to find Earth. He had to prepare it for the Doctor. Everything needed to be just perfect, for the day when destiny was to take him home.
They spent several hours wandering the streets, their wonder and excitement long gone. Mediaeval walkways awaited them; avenues of futuristic design - to Ace at least - with subdued street lighting and roads no longer designed for the passage of ground vehicles. There were whole communities from the nineteen twenties; a terrace half-destroyed in the Blitz; a row of Georgian buildings with their well-dressed occupants standing in stately silence before a horse-drawn carriage. It seemed to go on forever.
"What's going on, Professor?" Used now to the feel of the warm skin, Ace touched a young woman on the arm, wishing that there was some way in which she could reach out, and impart some reassurance to a trapped soul. Did these people know that she was close by? Were they still conscious in some small way? Or were they as dead to their surroundings as any genuine waxworks would be? She wished that the Doctor could answer her questions, but he did not seem to know.
"Somebody with a very sick mind has come up with a novel form of entertainment." He had wandered on ahead before he realised that she was not following him, and he slowed his walk to a halt. "I don't know, Ace. I really don't. All that I can imagine is that some alien being has done this. I can't see any human having the ability. Although admittedly I don't know what period we're in."
"It all seems a little convenient to me, that's all. A whirlpool in the Matrix; something that you said was scientifically impossible. It forces us to land here, and this is what we find? Tell me that this is coincidence."
"On the whole, Ace, coincidence is a concept that is highly overrated." He sighed, rubbing his brow. "I wish I knew who was behind all of this."
"Whoever it is, I'm sure they'll introduce themselves soon. They usually do." She walked over to a window and peered inside the room beyond. The glassy stare of a row of frozen diners stared back at her, and she realised that she was standing outside some kind of sandwich bar. A waitress was serving coffee, standing beside a crumpled, hand-written notice informing the clientele of the kinds of people that were not welcome as diners. Whoever had written the notice clearly did not much care for a thriving business, for they had ruled out half of the population of London; or, at least, half of the population as it had been when Ace had left Earth. She felt a deep hatred of the establishment, which fed her anger and her frustrations about the whole place.
"I hate this! It's so quiet!"
"Easy Ace." He put his hand on her shoulders, and led her to the curb. "Here. Sit down, okay? It'll be alright."
"Yes, of course it will." She smiled at him, glad for his sudden calm. He might have a tendency to rush about in clear confusion rather a lot of the time, but when it really counted he was as cool as ice. "We'll find the bad guys, and we'll shut them down, right Professor?"
"Of course." He gave her arm a quick squeeze, and stepped away into the middle of the road. Up above the clouds were clearing away and the stars were bright once again. Soon it would be daylight. His eyes scanned the stars for any sign of a clue. The constellations were all familiar; placing him on Earth, in the northern hemisphere, probably in late spring or early summer. As he watched a haze grew across the sky, moving rapidly to cover the almost full moon. It was a shapeless grey mist, but for a few seconds he could almost have believed that there was a face within it. A vast, staring face, split into a humourless grin. He stared upwards, and thought that the eyes within that face burned down at him briefly, filled with malevolent hatred; but it could just as easily have been the brightness of the moon, shining through the mist. He turned away, and did not see the face as it moved closer, until the misty haze was hanging bare inches above his head.
The silence went on forever, and as Ace tried to pass the last few hours of the night in awkward sleep, the lack of noise broke her peace and kept her awake. She wanted to go back to the TARDIS, but she knew that that was out of the question. Whatever her feelings on the subject, she knew that she had a duty to these people. Whoever they were or whoever they had been, they were now helpless, and were held at the mercy of who knew what sort of monster. The Doctor would not leave them - and neither, despite her unease, would she. She owed them that at least. All the same, for all her resolution and her undeniable courage, she was restless and afraid, and was extremely pleased to see the faint glow of dawn in the sky. She rose to meet it, watching as the sun awoke. It pushed the shadows away but did little to disperse the mist that still hung so closely overhead.
"Professor?" She had fallen asleep for a few short minutes, and could no longer see him. He came at her call, swinging his umbrella from his fingertips. He seemed unfairly jaunty, and as refreshed as though he had slept a peaceful and unbroken eight hours.
"Ace!" There was good cheer in his voice, too; although she was unsure how much of it was real. He was an accomplished actor, and could present any sort of a front to the world when the situation demanded it.
"Where did you get to?" She rubbed the sleep - or rather the lack of it - from her eyes, and straightened her leather jacket. There was a low rustle and the dull thud of badges knocking against one another in answer. Odd how efficient a security blanket the old jacket could be.
"I went back to the TARDIS. I had some theories that I wanted to test." He smiled at her. "Perhaps you'd like to go back there yourself? Get a little rest?"
"I'm fine." She stuck her hands into her pockets. "So what's the theory Professor? What exactly is doing all of this, and how do we teach it a lesson?"
He smiled, pleased by her resolve, but gave no immediate answer. She glanced up at the sky.
"Well it's morning anyway. I hope you have some kind of a plan, because if I was the bad guy I'd be thinking about dropping by about now."
"Very likely." He sighed. "I've been running some tests, Ace. Something didn't quite ring true in my mind, and I wanted to be sure before I spoke about it."
"We're not on Earth?" It was only a niggling suspicion, but she voiced it nonetheless. Again he did not answer immediately. "Well?"
"We do seem to be on Earth." He frowned, toying with his umbrella handle. The question mark shape was a symbol in his hands, and quite suddenly she hated it. Just once it would be nice to wake up in the morning and not have a single unanswered question; not have a single worry in her mind or a problem that needed solving. She had no doubt that she would tire of it very soon, but in the meantime it would make a pleasant change.
"Something's wrong Professor. I can tell."
"Yes, well we do seem to be in something of an awkward position." There was another pause. "It's only a theory Ace, and I don't want you to jump to any conclusions, but the TARDIS isn't working properly. I ran a few provisional tests, and we can't take off. We can't even dematerialise. It's as though some kind of a force is holding us here."
"And where exactly is here?" Shutting out the first part of his revelation for the time being, she focussed herself on the most immediate part of the problem. His frown had deepened.
"We seem to be on Earth, most probably in the UK; but the instruments can't pinpoint our Timezone. According to the TARDIS computers, when we began to prepare for rematerialisation we were headed for 1987, Western Era. Now I'm not so sure."
"You mean something threw us of course?"
"Sucked us off course would be more precise. Something caused the TARDIS to enter that disturbance in the Matrix. Something made us materialise, and whatever that something was, it brought us here. We're on Earth alright, but not in any conventional sense. We're outside Time."
"Outside...?" She struggled to understand. "You mean, like, in some other dimension? Or - or like that guy in the story, who sent himself one second into the future, and was trapped on his own forever?"
"Not exactly." He finished toying with the question mark on his umbrella, and shook his head. "I'm not altogether sure that I understand it myself, but basically... It's as though someone has constructed something... something like a holding centre, or a prison, which exists outside of Time as we understand it. It's the only idea that the TARDIS computers can come up with, and it's the only thing that even begins to make sense."
"But who would do such a thing? Who would build this place here, and bring us to it?"
"Not you, Ace." He smiled at her in that fond way that meant so much. "Me. Me and my TARDIS. This trap was set up specifically for us."
"Oh good." She nodded. "Great. All this way across the universe, and we wind up crashing into yet another of your old friends." A pause halted her momentarily. "This couldn't be the Master again, could it?"
"I don't think so. He might be a remarkable individual, but he doesn't have the sort of powers that this calls for. To be honest I can't think of anybody who does, except for one of the Guardians. And they haven't been bothered with me in years." He began to pace. "It's so perfect; so beautifully done. A place that the TARDIS can't escape from; and even if it could I couldn't leave it. Whoever built this place knows that I can't leave these people here like this. I have to stay here as long as they do." He wandered over to the nearest statue. It was a young girl, dark-haired and pretty, and no more than fifteen years old. She brought cloudy, distant memories of Susan to his mind, and pangs of sorrow struck at both his hearts. "The perfect prison; of the body and of the mind."
"You really think that somebody brought you here to imprison you? To get you out of the way? Well then you have to escape, Professor. You have to find a way out of here."
"I can't." He shrugged rather vaguely. "There is no way out. Given time I might be able to work something out, but I also have to find a way to free all of these people." He brushed a stray lock of hair out of the eyes of the small statue before him. The girl's forehead felt warm enough, but there was nothing in her eyes. They were more than just vacant; they looked dead. "A prison on Earth, in silence and utter solitude, where I'm held by more than mere prison walls. There's a strange kind of poetry to it, when you stop to think."
"You're not giving up, Professor?" There was shock in her eyes, and something a good deal more desperate. He stared at her in silence for several seconds.
"I have never given up Ace. Even when I was in the most impossible of situations, I never stopped believing in something. But this is different. This time the TARDIS is as lost as I am. There is no way to break free of whatever is holding us until I know what it is; and even if I can find a way to escape, I'm not leaving these people here." He smiled at her, although some of the certainty and the clarity had gone from his eyes. "We will find a way out of this, Ace. I promise you that much. I just have a feeling that our host isn't planning to reveal himself to us just yet; and until I can find out who or what he is, the next step is more than a little vague."
"In other words, make yourself comfortable." She scanned the skies, wondering if there was somebody up there, or out there, watching their every move and listening to every word that they spoke. What sort of sick mind would want to imprison the Doctor in so dreadful a place, where the silence and the stillness was so overbearing, so unbearable? Where his inability to help people was flaunting him so openly at all times? For a second, as the sun climbed higher into the sky, the ever present mist blocked out its warmth, and she shivered in the sudden chill. The mist dispersed, fading away into the distance; but as she continued to stare skyward she could have sworn that one of the clouds had opened an eye, and was staring down at her with a smile on its vacant face.
He stirred restlessly in the void, staring in his lazy way through the Hole, watching the drama as it unfolded before him. It was all so flawless, so perfect. Just as the Doctor himself had said, it was all so poetic, for now the Time Lord was trapped, in just the way that he had trapped Omega. He was lost in a nowhere place, where Time meant nothing. His prison could not be as complete as that which held his foe, but it held him nonetheless, and it tortured as it trapped. The Doctor wanted to help the people around him, but there was nothing that he could do. Omega had them all under his spell, and he was not going to release them; not for a very long time. He would wait, for yesterday was very much like today in his timeless universe. He would wait and he would watch; and finally, when he thought that all was ready, he would make his move; the next step. Freedom would be his, of that he was determined. He would break free of this antimatter infinity that held him; or he would send the Doctor's universe crashing out of existence. It would be easy... all would be serene. So many countless billions of lives, blinking out of existence at the stroke of his gentle touch. Now that he had the Hole; now that he had the energies of his surroundings tapped; there was nothing that was beyond him. Nothing save the power to take form in the universe beyond his own.
The sun rose and fell, and rose and fell, in its eternal and timeless way. Nights passed in cool seclusion, indistinguishable from the days save for the lack of light. Always it was still, always it was quiet. There was no machinery to disturb the peace, no shouts or cries. No birds sang, no animals called. The weather did not vary and the temperature remained constant. Day after day, with nothing to show for it. Ace thought that she had counted some sixty cycles of light and dark, but then she had lost count altogether. Her hair did not seem to have grown, and she had not had to so much as think about clipping her nails, or winding her watch. Just as the Doctor had said, they were outside Time. It had no effect on them, despite the endless cycling of the days. The monotony hurt her to the very soul, and she wandered alone through the silent streets. For day after day she hardly saw her Time Lord companion. He had sealed himself away in the TARDIS, experimenting, reading, tinkering; doing anything except walking about outside. He hated to see the frozen people, and although she hated it almost as much, she preferred their company to the frenzied activities inside the TARDIS. She hated the fact that there was nothing she could do to help. She hated to stand and watch whilst the Doctor did all of the work. She hated to see him, his once humour-filled eyes turned to his equipment, with time for nothing else. He had spoken to her at first, talking of his thoughts and his plans. He had outlined his ideas, and discussed his failings and his successes. Now he did not speak at all. He stared at his equipment, he made adjustments, and his pace never slackened; but she could see that something had gone. Something had changed.
It had begun when the failures had started to mount up. His lively chatterings had begun to slow, to become somewhat less frequent. He had begun to think more, and to talk less. He brooded over his problems, and his smile came less often. Soon there were shadows in his eyes, and his face became rigid and fixed. His mouth was a hard line, his brow crumpled into an unforgiving frown. He could not break the TARDIS free, and he could not cure the frozen citizens of this horrible ghost city. All that he could do was to keep trying, and to keep counting his failures. Each one hurt him, she knew that. Each time that another plan came to nothing, the shadows darkened and his mood deepened. He was sinking inside himself, and she could no longer reach him.
"It's not fair." She kicked at a loose stone resting among the cobbles in the street down which she now wandered. She did not recognise the landmarks, although she was fairly sure that she had seen every part of her prison now. Bits seemed familiar, but she had long since ceased to care. Every walkway was silent, every house held some frozen, inanimate occupant. "It's just not fair."
What do you expect? her subconscious seemed to say. What is it that you want?
"I want the Professor back." She sat down on a wagon parked by the side of the road, where two silent horses stood as statues, waiting for their equally unmoving master to harness them up. "I want things to be like they were before. We had fun." She toyed with the sacks around her. They were flour sacks, although she could not open them to see their contents. It occurred to her that she could use the flour, and any other ingredients that were lying around, and maybe make something; something fresh to change the routine of her days. It would give her something to do. Home-cooked food might make the Doctor snap out of his depression; except that she had no idea how to cook. Building bombs was her great talent, not baking bread. She scowled. She felt so useless - so utterly, utterly useless. The Doctor could not find a way out, so there was certainly nothing that she could do.
I could let you go. She had thought at first that the words came from within her, but now she knew that they did not. She looked around.
"Who are you?" She could see no one, save for the statues; and clearly none of them had spoken. She stood up in the cart, looking about. "Where are you?"
Here. There was no emotion in the voice; it was just words, strung together without feeling. It was monotonous and empty, and yet there was something within it. Something strange.
"Show yourself." She jumped down to the ground, catching up a large, loose stone. It was a makeshift weapon, but she felt better for its presence. The Doctor would have told her to put it down and use her head; but she was not the Doctor, and lately neither was he.
I don't have to. I'm everywhere. There was a short laugh, although it held no humour. You haven't figured it out yet, have you. Neither of you has.
"It's you, isn't it. You're the one who brought us here." For some reason that she did not fully understand, she was looking up at the sky. "You're our jailer."
That's right. I suppose.
Because. There was the short laugh again. Isn't it beautiful? Wonderful? I was pleased with myself to have thought of it. The perfect place to imprison the Doctor. He holds such store by the creatures in this universe. He hold himself responsible for every one of them; for every one of you. You're his reason for living, his strength and his weakness. He would die for each and every one of you.
"I'm not proud of that." She scowled. "Who are you?"
An old friend. A very old friend. I made the Doctor, and now I plan to break him.
"Why?" Anger and frustration filled her voice. He was everywhere, and yet he seemed to be nowhere, and she could not see him. "What have you got against him? He's never hurt anybody. He's never done any damage. He's never tried to do anything except what was right." Pride and loyalty filled her; a sense of devotion, both to the Doctor and to his cause. "He helps people. He cares. What right have you got to judge him? You won't even let me see you."
I can't. For the first time, there was something beyond the monotone of his voice. There was anger and there was hatred, like a deep malevolence beneath his words. There is nothing to see. You speak of your wonderful Doctor, doing what he can for the good of all. But what of those of us he doesn't care for? He needs me, and yet he cares nothing. Where would he be if it wasn't for me? Where would all of the Time Lords be? They would be nothing. They would be nowhere. They would be some second rate civilisation in a part of space that nobody else ever goes to; a lost race in the middle of nowhere. And all of the Doctor's great deeds, and all of the races that he's saved. All of the people that he's helped and the enemies that he's vanquished. They would all be nothing. The Daleks would rule, and who's to say that the universe would be a worse place? Who's to say that all he does is right? There was a long pause. I offered you the chance to go free. Will you accept that offer?
"And what happens to the Professor?"
He stays here. He stays until he begs for forgiveness. He stays until he can take it no longer, and pleads for it all to be ended.
"That won't happen."
Then he'll stay here forever. I don't care. Time means nothing to me.
"You're mad." She stared up at the sky, watching the dark clouds moving in their pointless circles. The sun was dimming, although it was not yet time for it to set.
Maybe. Maybe you're mad, and I'm the one who's sane. Maybe all things are mad. Maybe I'll destroy the universe tomorrow, and use the pieces to build a new balloon. Ace thought that she heard a chuckle, filled with that same hatred that the voice had demonstrated before. Then you'll not take your freedom?
"I won't leave the Professor. He wouldn't leave me."
Then live the rest of your life.
"Who are you?" There was no answer, and she knew immediately that the voice had gone. It had said its goodbyes. All the same she scanned the skies for several minutes, watching the clouds and imagining that they were watching her. The voice did not return. Finally, troubled, she turned around and headed back to the TARDIS. It was time to have a little talk with the Doctor.
She found him in the curious little workroom where he spent so much of his time nowadays; a brightly lit place, where the large white roundels in the walls seemed to glow with their own life. The whole of one wall was lined with books; everything from dusty old leather-bound masterpieces to glossy, hard-backed volumes that looked suspiciously like mail-order Readers' Digest Encyclopaedias. There was an elongated workbench in the middle of the room, invariably spread over with tools collected from every corner of the universe - Did the universe have corners, Ace pondered, then wondered whether it really mattered - and there was also a large, framed photograph propped up against a wooden box at one end of the bench. It was autographed, she knew, although it had taken her a while to decode the wildly looping style of the writing in order to interpret the name. She hadn't recognised the picture, for it was in colour, and in perfect focus. She had become rather used to old, grainy snaps in school history textbooks; but on seeing the Doctor's souvenir she had concluded that she wouldn't mind meeting Michael Faraday. He hadn't been a bad looking bloke.
"Professor?" He did not react at first, but she was used to that. "Er... Professor?"
"Ah, Ace. Hold this could you?" He handed her some ramshackle collection of bits and pieces, which seemed to be held together with string and sellotape. She obeyed, taking it rather gingerly, afraid it would fall apart in her hands.
"What is it?" she asked, but again received no immediate reply.
"I beg your pardon? Oh. Well it's a - it's a--" He shrugged. "I was rather hoping that I could find some way to persuade the TARDIS that the barriers holding us here don't really exist, and - well that's part of my plan." His accent seemed stronger somehow, as though increased by stress.
"Professor?" She did not want to disturb him, knowing how short his temper was these days, but she wanted to tell him nonetheless. Again there was no answer, and she decided to press on. This needed to be said, for she hadn't seen him in such good light in several days, and the shadows around his eyes and the new lines of grey in his hair worried her deeply. "I... I think I just had a visitor."
"Pardon?" It did not seem to have registered, and she swallowed her annoyance. It was impossible to get him to listen just lately. All that he cared about were the people out there, in those streets. Even freeing the TARDIS had been put on the backburners; something that he returned to when his mind was too exhausted to continue thinking about the frozen humans. It had become an obsession; a terrible need to fulfil some obligation that he seemed to think he owed them. It was his fault that they were here, frozen in such a strange, hopeless way. It was his fault that this whole place had been set up; or so he thought. She could almost have believed that the guilt was killing him.
"A visitor. Professor will you please listen to me?"
"Look Ace, I'm busy, alright? Maybe later."
"There's never any later with you. You're always busy in here. You haven't stepped outside the TARDIS in weeks, and I haven't had a proper conversation with you in even longer than that. Can't you see what you're doing?"
"I'm working, Ace." His voice had become clipped and impatient, and as he paused to glance up at her she saw hard lights in his eyes. He had never looked at her in that way before. Other people yes, but never her.
"I know you are." She crouched down beside him, leaning on the workbench. "Professor, I just met the man who put us here."
"Hmm?" She waited a moment to let this sink in, then he glanced back at her again, a frown showing above his eyes. "Are you sure?"
"As sure as I can be." She waited another moment, this time to watch him slow his hands, and finally lower his tools. He sat down on the ground, a small piece of circuitry gripped in his right hand, the fingers curled around it until it seemed as though its sharp edges must cut through his skin.
"Who is he?"
"I don't know. He wouldn't tell me." She shrugged. "It was pretty weird, Professor. I heard his voice, but it was sort of... sort of inside me. And I couldn't see anybody anywhere."
"What did he say?"
"Weird stuff. He said that I couldn't see him because there was nothing to see. That he wasn't really there, or something. He said that it was all your fault, and that he'd made you and was going to break you too. He was angry about all of the Time Lords, but you in particular. He seemed to think that you owed him something."
"Owed him something?" It sounded like an off-key echo. "I don't owe anybody anything. Not that I'm aware of anyway. Go on Ace."
"That's pretty much all. Except that he talked about the Time Lords, and how they would be nothing without him. He also said that he wasn't going to let us go. Not unless you begged him to." She lowered her head. "He knew all about you, Professor. He knew exactly how much this place would hurt you. And--"
"And what?" There was little emotion in those two short words; as though the exhaustion was finally getting to the Time Lord, and he no longer had any energy or resolve left.
"He said that he might destroy the universe. All of it. He seemed to think that he could."
"Nice chap." There was a long silence and Ace hesitated, unsure what was to come next. She did not like to speak too soon, and maybe disturb the Doctor's thoughts; but as Time stretched on, and still he made no sound or movement, she put her hand on his shoulder. Still he did not react.
"Professor? Do you know who he is?"
"No." He shrugged. "The only person that the Time Lords owe anything to is Rassilon, and this isn't him."
"Are you sure?"
"Very." He sighed, looking disconsolate and tired. "Whoever he is, I'd say he's getting impatient though. To have waited this long, and then spoken to you... He wants something to happen. He wants to force a reaction from me."
"You mean this was never meant to be just a prison?" She frowned. "Professor, I--"
"It's alright Ace." He rose to his feet. "He's waited this long to make his first move, he might wait twice as long to make his second. Time is nothing to us here, after all."
"Time is..." She frowned. "That's something that he said. When I told him that you would never beg to be set free, he said that he didn't care, because Time meant nothing to him. It was as if he was in some other place; like this, perhaps, where there is no Time."
"Trapped in some other place. Trapped in--" He broke off. "Good grief! How could I have been so stupid! Of course!"
"Er... Breakthrough?" She stepped back, surprised by the speed with which he leapt suddenly to his feet. He smiled at her; the first smile in so long that she barely remembered it.
"Omega!" He spoke the word as though it were a great revelation. "Omega, of all - It all makes perfect sense of course, when you think about it."
"Of course it does." She smiled, pleased by his enthusiasm although totally at a loss as to what he was talking about. "Who or what is Omega?"
"A Gallifreyan." The jubilation had gone from his voice, almost as though he was too tired to keep it going. He leant against his workbench, speaking the words in a soft, measured tone, apparently using them to help him think as much as to inform her of the situation. "He was a scientist who discovered a black hole. It had immense energy within it, and he realised that he could use it for great things. He went into it, to try and tap the energies, but he was lost. Everybody believed that it was dead, but countless aeons later he turned up again. He was trapped in an antimatter universe. His body had decayed, and he was just a living mind. He wanted to break free, but his plans put this universe in jeopardy, and I had to foil them; I actually tried to kill him. I felt bad about it at the time. He only wanted to escape." He shrugged. "I thought that he was dead, but of course he wasn't really alive in the first place. He came back. A Time Lord on Gallifrey helped him to gain my biological code, and he began work on a new body, based on my own, that would allow him to live in this universe; to have form and shape again. It looked as though it was going to work alright, but the antimatter shielding broke down. A whole galaxy - possibly even the universe itself - would have been destroyed. I had to send him back again. I gave him a choice. I said I would destroy him completely, or just send him back to his own world, but in the end there wasn't the time for decisions. I just had to pull the trigger. I suppose I must have banished him again. I couldn't kill him. Not then."
"Of course you couldn't. Poor man." She shivered. "It's horrible to think of him, trapped in some other universe all of this time. He must have gone mad."
"He was alone for millennia. It drove him a lot further than just over the edge." Sighing, the Doctor rubbed his eyes. "Still, that was a long time ago. I was a different man then, and although I couldn't kill him then, the rules have changed now. I've changed."
"But if he's not really alive, and if he's not really here, how can you possibly kill him?" She frowned. "And why would you want to? Can't we do something to help him? Isn't there any way that he could live in this universe again? If you were to work with him; if the Time Lords were to join together... You said yourself that he was one of you."
"He wasn't a Time Lord, he was a Gallifreyan. There were no Time Lords back then, and the High Council now would never agree to it." He stared into space for several seconds. "You don't seem to understand, Ace. After all those millennia, with nothing save his own mind and its creations for company, he's gone where nobody else can ever think about following. An hour's session every week with a psychiatrist is hardly going to solve his problems. What form he does have is pure antimatter. Were he to come into this universe, he would destroy it utterly; and he knows that. I can't take the risk. I wanted to help him; I really did. But the time for that has passed, and now he's just a danger. I wish that I had killed him when I had the chance, but I wasn't the man for the job back then. I am now."
"Then maybe I should be helping the man you were back then." She spoke the words almost before she realised that they were coming out. They sounded hard and unforgiving, and he frowned at her. There was no pain in his eyes at this betrayal; no hurt or change of heart. He merely shrugged.
"I'll do what I have to do, Ace. I have responsibilities."
"And what about him? Do you think he spoke to me just for fun? He must have done it to give you a clue as to who you're dealing with. He must have something planned, or he would never have taken the risk."
"I know that." He shrugged, smiling a hard little smile. "But this has to end one way or the other, Ace. It's Omega or the universe, and I know which choice I have to make."
"I know too." She lowered her eyes. "Omega wants you to try something, doesn't he. He imprisoned you here, and left you the bait to snap at; all those people needing you, torturing your mind. Now he's letting you know that he's responsible. It's all a part of his plot."
"Yes." He smiled at her, eyes bright and kind once again. "You should have been a Gallifreyan, Ace. You have the mind for it."
"I wouldn't want the responsibility." She lowered her head. "When you go after him, what's he going to do?"
"I don't know; but I should imagine that it has something to do with his desire to be whole again; to escape back into this world."
"He wants to kill you."
"Not necessarily. If that was all that he wanted, he could have done it several times over by now." He took her hand, and for a moment she saw the old look in his eyes, and saw again the man that she had known for so long. The strange, mystery-laden man with whom she had chosen, at a whim, to roam all Time and space. For a moment he was everything to her. He was a brother, a father, a teacher, a hero. He was a man that so few knew about, and yet so many owed so much to. At that moment she would have done anything for him. "There's a world going by outside this place that he's keeping us in, Ace. A world, a galaxy, a universe. Countless Timezones, overlaid throughout a virtual infinity, all filled with people and civilisations that face darkness and death and destruction every single day. Every moment that I'm stuck here, those people could be dying, or worse. Every second that I waste here, stuck in some insane egotist's little hall of horrors, I could be out there, helping people and doing what I've always done. I can't let the universe down. I can't stay here; not when there's the slightest chance of finding a way out."
She shook her head. She understood what he was saying, and she sympathised a little, but she could not agree. She couldn't believe that so much had changed. It had all been so much fun before. It had been a non-stop trek through the universe, helping people only because they found them. Saving worlds had been a sideline, not a life-affirming task. Somewhere along the line the Doctor had been caught up in his own tangled web, and had lost sight of his original motivations. She wanted to help him to find them again, but she didn't know where to start. She stepped aside and let him walk past; and he left the room and strode away through the TARDIS corridors. She didn't follow him. It was only when he had long gone that she realised he had left his umbrella behind. She picked it up and twirled it in her fingers, and let her hands run absently over the red question-mark handle. She knew immediately that she had to go to him, even before the memories of their time together began to play themselves through her mind; and with the briefest of smiles she tucked the umbrella under her arm and ran out of the room. Whatever his motivations, and whatever the outcome of his actions, she would be with him. Neither of them had anybody else in the whole universe.
The streets were quiet, and the statues stared on in their stately silence, their eyes seeing nothing and caring about even less. The Doctor walked past them all, ignoring the emotions that they stirred within him. He was beyond Time here, but as a Noble of the Fourth Dimension it was as much a part of him as the blood that his twin hearts pumped around his body. He knew that he had been in this place a long time. He knew that it was a small infinity since these hapless humans had been imprisoned here. There was no telling whether they would ever be returned to life, or to the places in which they belonged. There was no telling if they were still alive, or if Omega's tricks had killed them all. He thought about the countless thousands of them, imprisoned in this never-ending museum of non-existent Time. To even consider the possibility that they might all be dead was enough to make his hearts beat faster. To think that it could all be his fault made his head pound. He hated Omega. Hate was an emotion that he had held in check in the past, but the darker thoughts had always come easily to his present self. Seven was a magical number, after all. It was the number of myth and legend, at the centre of dark tales and ancient folklore. It stood to reason that it was the number of his current incarnation, a self which had become immersed in more dark events than all his other selves combined. It was as though, at times, that he could not see his feet when he looked down, for the path that he now followed was so enshrouded with mist that all was hidden from him. If his instincts were right, the only way to go back to the lighter days, to the times when this had all been fun, would be to regenerate, and to start again from scratch with some new body, some fresh personality. But he had no intention of doing that unless he had no choice. Dark and moody he might be, but he was still himself. He might be able to see the fact that it was all so different now, but it was the way that it was, and that could not help but feel right.
"Are you out there Omega?" He raised his voice as much as he could without shouting, and stared up at the slowly moving clouds and the ever-present smudge of distant mist. It seemed to sink lower at his words, bringing new shadows to the road and to his upturned face. A chill ran through him. "I know that you're there, Omega. I know that you're behind this. There's something that you want from me, and you think that this is the way to force me to give it to you. Why not show yourself and let it all be over?"
I can't show myself. It surprised the Time Lord to feel the words inside his head, rather than to hear them. They were as clear as spoken words, but he knew that they did not come from sound waves. They came from somewhere within. You saw to that.
"So there you are." He folded his arms. "It's good to speak to you again. How have you been keeping?"
Be silent Doctor. I have no desire to hear your bad jokes.
"Bad jokes?" He laughed sardonically. "You never did have much of a sense of humour as I recall. Takes away your sense of fun, I suppose, being trapped all alone in the middle of nowhere."
You are asking for trouble.
"I usually am." He scanned the world about him, still looking for his enemy, even though he knew that there was nothing to see. "So what happened? Did you find another black hole? Some way to effect this universe without actually being here?"
You think fast, Time Lord. I see that this incarnation is rather more efficient than the others I encountered. The old man, the clown, the dandy and the reckless youth. What are you?
"The one who ends it. The one who sends you into the oblivion you should have met with a million years ago." Part of him agreed with Omega's uncomplimentary assessment of his earlier incarnations, and another part of him smarted at the insults. "Whatever your plan is, it's not going to work."
You will not beg for mercy? You will not plead for freedom?
"Not on this side of existence." There was a pause.
Then let the days pass. The Doctor thought that he heard a low chuckle in the centre of his mind, and then there was silence.
"Omega?" He looked about him, shouting for his foe to return, but still the silence remained. He had been expecting something more to their conversation; some demand from his rival perhaps, or threats at the very least. Clearly the antimatter creature had learnt patience during his most recent exile. It angered the Doctor that there was no way he could force the other's hand. "Have it your own way." He turned about and began to walk into the distance, heading away from the TARDIS and away from Ace. He didn't know where he was going. He only knew that he had to be there.
And so the days passed on, with no evidence of their circle than the constant growing and fading of the light. Ace had not seen the Doctor in a long time, but she did not know how long. Her watch still showed the same time and date as it had when the TARDIS had landed in its prison, and the calendar on board the ship was stuck at zero, along with just about every other instrument and reading in the console room. Her attempts to count the cycling days were thwarted by boredom, and also by the strange feeling she had that, every so often, night followed night, or day followed day, and that sometimes a day would last a week, or a week would last a year. It was relative, she told herself. It showed some measure of the passing months outside the prison, but inside it was nothing. All that it meant to her was a headache, and a sense of dreadful suspension. With no Doctor to speak to she was sealed in a place of infinite silence, and the solitude hurt. It made her feel lost, and afloat in some strange and suffocating place. She searched for her Time Lord companion every day, needing to be with him, knowing that he needed her whether he realised it or not; but she never found him, and the days passed onwards. She got the impression that the world beyond her temporal enclosure had progressed a long way since the last time she had been free to wander within it.
For the Doctor everything was slower, and much more intense. Each second, if there was such a thing in a prison without Time, lasted aeons. Every minute was some vast creation of a waking nightmare. The passing days hovered over him, huge black vultures waiting to strike at his conscience. The silence and the emptiness were a torture of their own, but more so was the fact that he was condemning Ace to the same fate. And yet, still he stayed away from her, wandering on his own down the never-ending streets of silent statues. He couldn't go back. Even if he had been sure which was the way back to the TARDIS, he could not go there now. To seal himself again in those long corridors, full of reminders of the duty he was now failing... He rubbed his eyes, confused. Did he owe the universe something? Was there some duty he had, something that he was honour-bound to fulfil? He remembered long years of aimless wandering, sharing adventures and enlightenment with his friends. That didn't sound like much of a duty. He remembered places - the Eye of Orion, where the world was so slow and peaceful; Brighton on a lazy summer Sunday afternoon; Rigos when the thirteen moons all reached their fullest phase at the same time. It only happened once every four hundred years, and it was the scene of the most beautiful parades and awe-inspiring celebrations. He remembered the first time that he had seen the Notting Hill Carnival; the first time that he had walked along the beach on Mauritius; that gentle, special day when he had hovered in his TARDIS, keeping carefully out of sight, and had watched Neil Armstrong walk across the surface of the moon. He had felt so excited. It was a small victory for the humans, when seen in relation to the technology of his own people; but it had meant so much to him. He wanted to walk amongst them once again. He wanted to pretend to be one of them, and to walk down their streets. He wanted to listen to their idle chatter, and to watch their bizarre television programmes. He wanted to follow their excitable summer parades and to listen to their loud and unique music. They were only humans. Their civilisation was nothing when compared to those of the galaxy's other residents. They fought and killed each other for no reason, and they hurt each other when they should have been holding hands; but they meant more to him that he could ever fully understand. He wanted to be with them again. He wanted to see those endless streets before him come to life; to know that the statues were to be living, breathing humans again, free to return to the lives they had been stolen from; free to laugh and to play, and to learn - and even to fight and to kill if such was their want. They had to have the chance to do what they should always have done.
"I feel like such a fool." He was sitting on the curb at the side of a road that he had identified as harking from the mid-eighties. The nineteen eighties that was, he thought to himself, thinking of all the other centuries that he had visited on this isolated little planet. Electrical goods stores showed a variety of typically eighties equipment in their windows; hi-fis that were large and black, with numerous flashing coloured lights that did nothing save please the eye. Televisions with huge speakers, only four channels on offer, no satellite or digital equipment anywhere in sight. There were computers too, from the days before the Microsoft revolution. Commodores and Toshibas and cheerful little Spectrums, already looking out of date beside the newer games consoles. Brand new CD players, not long available on the market, with some enterprising salesman forever frozen in the act of showing their virtues to a young yuppie couple, looking as though they were heading straight for Black Monday with their eyes wide shut. The Doctor smiled. He wondered who they were, or who they had been. Who they might one day get the chance to be again, if he could only break Omega's hold over them. He stood up and wandered on down the road, past the newspaper seller yelling a silent headline to the world; past the pair of schoolboys pouring over the cover of a new LP; past the little cinema advertising its newest film, The Lost Boys, to a generation of eighties kids that were not going to get the chance to be anything else, unless he did something about it. Some part of his mind was telling him that it had been only a few hours since he had last seen the TARDIS, whilst the same part of him was saying that it had been many years since he had spoken to Omega. He didn't know any more, and he didn't much care. However long it had been, it was time to make another move. It was time to do something, before his drifting mind drifted off on its own forever.
It was midday when Ace reached the moss-enhanced war memorial in the middle of the 2020s section; at least, she thought it was midday. As far as she knew it had been midday for what felt like a week, and her internal body-clock was rebelling with zeal. She still had the Doctor's umbrella in her hands, for she was still searching for him; still waiting for the moment of their reunion. She knew that he must be close to the end of his tether by now, for she knew that she was at a loss herself, and for him it would be so much worse. She could not imagine how Omega had survived for so long, in his own special solitude; but she could only conclude that when you were not really alive, even suicide was denied you, and that had to be the greatest torture of all.
He came towards her from the opposite end of the street, his clothes rumpled and his jacket torn. He looked tired; more than that, he looked haggard, the lines on his face deeper than she had ever seen them, his hair more grey. He walked towards her, apparently not noticing that she was there, until finally he smiled at her and reached out to take the umbrella. He pushed his hat back on his head, frowning at her.
"I'm sorry," he said, as though there were something terrible that he needed to apologise for. She smiled.
"I don't need your apologies, Professor. I need you."
"And I think I need you too Ace." He sighed. "I thought that I could handle this. When I met Omega, I thought that I could withstand his demands, his tortures; but the fact of the matter is that I'm at my wits end. I can't take much more of this."
"You don't owe these people anything, Professor. It doesn't have to be up to you to free them."
"But who else is there, Ace?" His words were tired, and his voice was quiet. "Who else is there?"
"The universe is full of people who can do what you do. It must be. We can look after each other, if we stick together. We don't need anybody else. It can be like a holiday, so long as we're together, and we don't let the loneliness get to us."
"Maybe." His smile seemed to grow stronger. "I think I should like to take a holiday with you Ace. But the fact is that Time doesn't wait for us even when we're in a place where it doesn't exist." He opened the umbrella and tipped it against his shoulder like a parasol. "I am who I am, Ace; and that means that I have responsibilities. I have duties, and I have things that I must do. Maybe it was different once; and I'm sure that it'll be different again one day - maybe sooner than we think - but for now... Well. I can't stand around any longer and watch these people suffer on my account."
"You're going to give in to Omega. Whatever it is that he's asking, you're going to give it to him; aren't you."
"Maybe not." He handed her back the umbrella. "That does rather depend on what he's going to ask."
"No it doesn't." She stepped towards him, letting the umbrella fall to the ground at her feet. "Professor, it doesn't have to be this way. You don't have to do this. The universe has no right to put these demands on your shoulders; to expect so much of you. You don't have to do all of this for us. Omega wants to see you suffer; he might even want to kill you. You are allowed to turn the other cheek. You are allowed to let the burden pass to somebody else."
"Thankyou Ace." He gave her hand a small squeeze, and flashed her the small, fatherly smile that never failed to warm her heart. "But it's not a burden. Not always. Sometimes it's just a destiny." He stepped away and looked up in the sky, and his companion saw the faint, circling mist in the sky lower itself down until it had covered him completely.
"Good luck, Professor." She wanted to reach out and take his hand, but she knew that there was no point. She could no longer see him, and she was sure that he was no longer there. She waited until the mists had gone, and the Time Lord with them; until she was alone in the street, save for the hateful, staring creatures that surrounded her. Irrationally, senselessly, she blamed them all for what was happening now. It was their fault that the Doctor was going into the unknown. It was for them that he was risking - possibly even sacrificing - his life. She wanted to hit them, to smash them; to blow them all up with the nitro that she had not used in so long. Instead she just wandered back to the war memorial, and sat down on its white marble steps. Behind her the names of countless young men, all listed alphabetically, formed a backdrop to her negative thoughts. She leant back against them, letting their wall of tragic memories support her. In the road at her feet the umbrella blew about in the growing wind, and the dust began to cover it in a coating of grey and black.
It was dark. The darkness was total and without relief. The Doctor stared into it, wondering where he was, and when he was, and whether or not either meant much. He knew that he was at Omega's mercy as never before, and he tried to relax and to quieten his mind. He had to be patient and calm, and to await his jailer's pleasure, however long that might take. He tried closing his eyes, but the darkness followed him inside his mind, and quite suddenly he did not have the patience anymore. He just wanted this to be over.
"Omega!" He was startled to find that no sound came from his mouth. He could not see himself in the darkness, and wondered briefly if he still existed. Part of him seemed to have heard the shout however, despite the lack of noise. He tried it again, listening with his mind instead of with his ears. This time he heard himself more clearly. "Where are you?"
"I am here, Time Lord." The figure wandered out of the shadows, dressed in a long blue and gold robe that stretched out behind him for what seemed an infinity. A heavy mask in matching colours enclosed the head; or what would have been the head, had Omega had real form. The Doctor could still remember the time when he had first seen the legendary scientist remove his helmet, when it had been revealed that beneath it there was nothing but empty space. It was tragic and it was terrible, but there was nothing that anybody could do about it. It was done.
"Good. It's nice to be able to see you again at last."
"I wish that I could say the same thing." Omega came closer, the black, empty eye holes in his helmet casting compelling stares that seemed to burn right through the twin hearts of the Time Lord. "You've changed, Doctor."
"Haven't we all." He frowned, unsure what was to come next. "How have you been keeping?"
"I have been better." The voice was deep and rich, and yet strangely empty. "I have been lost for a long time, Doctor. It has taken me too long to find myself again."
"Perhaps you are." The scientist moved closer still, his yellow-gloved fingers opening and closing as though to the rhythm of his hearts. "You should have killed me that day Doctor. You should have destroyed me. What did I do that was so terrible it deserved more of this living hell? What have I done that is so evil that isolation in this place of utter desolation is considered a fitting punishment?"
"I don't know." The Time Lord stared back at the empty black eye holes, pondering over the feelings of hatred and pity that seemed so evenly balanced inside him. "You tangled with the wrong man, Omega, that's all that I can say. The day that I confronted you, when you were still dressed in the remains of what had once been my body... I could no more have killed you then than I could have killed a passer-by. If you're still looking for death, I can pull the trigger now. More has changed than just my face."
"I no longer wish for the end, Time Lord. Now I wish for more. I want to feel the breeze on my face again, and to touch the smooth ripples of cold water. I want to taste a hot drink brewed over a slow fire. I want to smell food cooking on a flaming stove and share a conversation with a trusted friend. I want life."
"All your friends are dead, Omega."
"Then I shall make new ones." The domed helmet tilted to one side. "Tell me, Time Lord. Did you ever climb to the top of a mountain with nothing but a helium balloon for company? Did you ever let one go, and watch it as it flew away? A single red balloon, drifting on its own, above all that scenery, all those people? Why should a piece of rubber on a length of string have more freedom than I, a man who created an entire civilisation single-handedly? Why should those pitiful humans that you hold in such great stead be free to tramp across the face of their planet, showing it no love or respect, learning nothing and doing nothing of any consequence, whilst I, Omega, am trapped in a place where no wind blows, and no rain falls, and no sun shines and nothing, nothing breathes or walks or sings? It is not fair, Doctor. The time has come to bring change."
"And how does this change come about?"
"Simple, Doctor." Omega reached out, gripping the Time Lord's shoulders with his powerful hands. "I need you to agree to do as I ask. I need you to accept me into yourself. I can make the journey into your universe, if I have somebody else to take me there. Somebody that I can use completely."
"You're asking me to give you my body. Forever."
"Not forever, Doctor. Only for as long as it lasts." The hollow laugh that came from the depths of the helmet was devoid of humour in its entirety. "You would remain here, alone, just as I have been for so long. Your precious humans will go free, and your companion will be released unharmed. I shall take your TARDIS, at least until I can get a newer model that is more to my liking. You will still be imprisoned, but the worst of your anguish will have been removed."
"And the rest of the universe? The world beyond the place you imprisoned me in? Who will look after that?"
"Who has always looked after it? The universe will return to the way things were before, when the Guardians battled each other for the right to rule. It's not such a bad way for things to be."
"And if I don't agree?"
"Then you return to your prison, Doctor, and I return to mine. I can wait forever, I've proved that before. How long can you wait? You haven't lasted very long so far. Already you scream for release, already you have taken as much as you are prepared to. Make your choice."
"There's no choice to make." He pushed the metal hands of his foe aside, and stared hard into the empty blackness within the helmet. "Be good to this body, Omega. It's been good to me."
"I will treat it as if it were my own, Time Lord." The scientist began to laugh. "What a foolish creature you are, Doctor, to be prepared to sacrifice your life for the sake of a few thousand humans who will never know about the choice you have just made. They will never know how much they owe you, and they will never care."
"That's the way it's supposed to be." He smiled grimly. "I never wanted any thanks, Omega. That's not why I do any of this. I do it because it's what I have to do; just the same as I have to do this." His fists tightened, his fingernails digging into the palms of his hands. "I'm ready."
"Good." Omega seemed to be growing before him, the metal head and the long flowing robe reaching higher and higher into the darkness that surrounded both members of the curious meeting. "Freedom will feel good, Time Lord. I hope that imprisonment will feel as good to you."
It was nearly dusk before the mist returned, and with it the Doctor. Ace stepped forward to greet him as he began to move, stretching his arms and the fingers attached as though he had not used them in a long, long time. He blinked hard and rubbed his eyes, then smiled.
"Professor, you - you're alright. Is it over?"
"It's over." The laugh did not quite seem like the one that she knew, but she did not question it at first. "At last."
"Can we go back to the TARDIS now?"
"We can." He straightened his collar and smoothed out his jacket, then strode away. He did not even seem to notice the umbrella lying on the ground.
"Doctor?" She picked it up, staring after him in surprise. He did not respond, and her heart sank. She had never called him by his chosen name. It was one of the things that made her who she was, and which defined their relationship. For him not to have responded to that sudden change could only have meant that something was wrong. Either he was tired - more tired than she could possibly imagine - or he was... She shuddered, then quite suddenly threw the umbrella down and raced after the Time Lord's retreating back. "Doctor?"
"What is it?" He did not look at her, or turn about to face her. He merely stopped walking. "We have to leave this place. You want to, don't you?"
"But the people. They're not free yet."
"They will be. As soon as I am." He sighed, then turned slowly around. His right hand reached out for her, but she stepped back so that it did not quite reach her shoulder. "I'm sorry. Don't ask questions, human, and don't hate me for what I've done. Please."
"Omega..." A long, powerful shudder ran through her body. "What have you done with him? What have you done with the Doctor?"
"The Doctor has made his choice. He chose to save the lives of these people, instead of returning here to be with you. It's what he's always done."
"He's in that other place. The place where you were, through the black hole." Her vision was blurring with hot tears, born of anger and grief. "How? How could you do that, after all that you've been through?"
"Because I could live with it no longer." He reached out, gripping her arms, and this time she was not quick enough to prevent him from making contact. His touch did not feel the same, even though the fingers touching her sleeves were just as they had always been. "I had to escape. I had to be free. The Doctor has gone, and you have to accept that now. I can look after you in the same way. I can be the man that he was. If you prefer, I will let you go back to your own people. Chose your Time, choose your planet. Choose your universe, if it pleases you."
"I won't go with you." With a mighty effort she pushed away his hands. "I won't spend five minutes with a man like you. You brought us here, you hurt all of these people, you sent the Doctor to hell and back and then stole his body; and now you expect me to pretend that you're him, and that the world is all fine and dandy? He was right. You're mad. Completely mad."
"I am not mad." She could see at once that she had touched a raw nerve. Hate came suddenly in his voice, replacing the emptiness that had been there before. The Scottish accent was almost completely gone now, and even his body seemed to have grown. "I am Omega. I am the greatest of all things. I will show the whole universe who I am!"
"You're as mad as a hatter." Her voice was filled with disgust. "You don't want to rule. You want to destroy. Once you get out there, once you see the universe for what it is, you won't want to be a part of it anymore. Your world is gone. The Time Lords will never accept you. They won't even accept the Doctor. The only way that they'll let you be one of them is if you beat them into submission. All the people that you knew died long before even the oldest of the Doctor's people was alive. There's nothing left of your world."
"I shall build a new world." He moved closer to her again, and she began to back away. "I will build new people, new planets. I built them before. In my universe I built worlds. I built a palace for myself, and subjects to rule. The Doctor destroyed it all when he came looking for me; when he brought his other selves and he sent me tumbling into the abyss once again. I can build them again, in this universe. If I have to destroy every galaxy, every planet, every living being on this side of reality, I will do so. I will rule!"
"Mad. You're completely mad." She found now that there was nowhere else to back away to. Her path was blocked by the large stone wall of a house behind her. She thought, if it mattered at all, that it was part of the nineteen twenties display, where all those young women walked and lived alone, and there were no young men at all. Omega's hand enclosed her throat, and she no longer felt the stones at her back. She no longer felt anything.
"I am Omega. I am this universe's destiny. I have returned to rule my domain!"
"You'll never be the Doctor." She stared into the eyes that she had once known so well; the eyes that had once been filled with love for her and for every other living thing. The eyes that could be at once filled with humour, and also decorated with shadows and mystery. They had been the eyes of a man who had walked with darkness and with light, and had emerged from both unscathed. They had been the eyes of a man who had laughed with Pythagoras and joked with Socrates. The eyes of a man who had helped William Shakespeare to write Much Ado About Nothing, and had sat with Dickens during long winter evenings, listening to the great man plan how his last novel was to come to its unwritten end. Now they were eyes that burned with unheard of passion; they were unfocussed and unnaturally bright; hot and cold at the same moment and filled with flames that reflected a whole universe full of desperation and building rage. And yet, somewhere deep within them, there was something. She thought, as she stared into those eyes, even as her own vision was beginning to blur from the pressure at her throat, that she could see a new light; a new spark. She thought that she could see a smile that was yet to be born.
"No!" With a scream of rage, Omega threw her aside, gripping at his head with fingers that threatened to split his own skull. "No! It cannot be! I will not allow it!" He spun unsteadily, clearly trying to get to the TARDIS which was now visible in the distance. "I will not allow it!"
It's too late for that, Omega. You have one chance. One last chance. Ace could hear the Doctor's voice, but just as she had been unable to see Omega when he had first spoken to her, she could not see her Time Lord friend now. She could only feel his voice, resounding inside her head. I'm still within you.
"It will not be so! This is my body now, Time Lord. I will take it and I will use it to begin my reign. You should no longer be here."
But I am here, Omega. I will always be here. There was something like a laugh, although it carried little humour. There's only one way out for us, and you know what it is. I won't let you bring this to the universe. You can't be allowed to live there if destruction is all that you plan to bring with you.
"It's too late to stop me, Doctor. It's too late. I'm here, I have made the transition. This is my body now."
I know. Which is why there's only one way to be sure that you can't use it.
"You would kill yourself? To stop me from having my freedom, you would make the ultimate sacrifice?"
"No Professor!" Jumping to her feet, Ace shouted into the air, yelling with every last scrap of her strength. If she had been able to shout louder than any other sound in existence, still she felt that it could not have been loud enough. "You can't do this!"
I have no choice, Ace. It's my fault that Omega is here. I sent him back to his universe. I left him there, capable of returning. I allowed him to cross back over. There was no other way to finish this.
"Then finish it, Doctor. Make your play. I may just win this battle."
No you won't Omega. The voice was so soft that Ace could barely hear it. She could hear little enough of anything.
"Professor...?" Her knees were beginning to give way, and her head spun. She wanted to cry, and yet she did not seem able. "Don't do this. Please."
I have to Ace. She wanted to see his smile again, one last time, but the face that she could see was not the Doctor's, even though it looked like his. It had no smile for her. Destiny is... an unpredictable thing.
"Save your words, Doctor. You'll need the strength for other things."
Perhaps you're right.
There was a flash of light, and the world seemed to glow with curious colours. There were voices all around, and Ace saw the people about her suddenly begin to move. They were talking and walking and they were fading at the same time. The houses had gone. The streets had gone, and so had the cars and the flowers and the grassy spaces between. There was nothing but dust around them now. Dust and emptiness, and a lonely umbrella with a red handle lying forgotten and unseen. She dashed the grime from her face, trying to see through the dust. Winds blew at her, buffeting her, knocking her from her feet so that she lay on the ground, dazed, confused and almost blinded by the turmoil. She spat the dust from her mouth and shouted for the Doctor, but no answer came. She could still see the shape of his body before her, vague and indeterminate in the undefined light. As she watched, she thought for a moment that there were two figures before her; two identical shapes; then one was no longer the Doctor. It was a creature - she could think of no other description for it. A gold and blue monster with a long, shapeless body and a great, domed head. Two huge, black eyes glared about at the world, and two mighty, patterned fists waved in the air. A long, muted howl came from its mouth, and the fists beat against the head with a sound much like metal, clashing against metal. The creature sank to its knees.
"This is how it ends." The voice was so doleful, so filled with pain and remorse that for a second Ace felt something like pity for this monstrous creature; this thing that she knew was Omega. Then abruptly the winds ceased and the lights faded and she alone was still standing. She could not even remember when she had climbed back to her feet.
"Professor." He was lying on the ground, a small wind blowing across him, a soft darkness enshrouding his form. For a second he was as still and as silent as death itself; then slowly he opened his eyes. He was smiling up at her, in the way that he had always done, his eyes warm and bright.
"Hello Ace." He reached up, and she took his hand, crouching down beside him. "Omega?"
"Dead, I think." She glanced over at the body. The Doctor nodded.
"Good. He can go and rule his own kingdom now. Free at last." He smiled. "I hope he can be happy."
"And what about you?"
"Me?" He sounded surprised, as though amazed that anybody should really care what happened to him. "I'm sorry, Ace. I'm no stronger than Omega; no better than he was. It killed him, and it can only do the same to me." His hand on hers tightened its grip. "But if all works as planned, it needn't be the end."
"What else is death, if it's not the end?" She couldn't imagine life without the Doctor, and didn't want to try. He laughed.
"The end... is very often just another way of writing the beginning. It can be an epitaph... or it can be the start of a whole new chapter." He smiled up at her once again. "Take me to the TARDIS Ace. And - thankyou."
"Thankyou for what?"
"For everything." His hand went limp in hers and his eyes closed, but she could still hear his voice inside her head. "Thankyou Ace. For everything."
She left Omega where he was, his empty robes and helmet a testimony to his insubstantial existence. She could only hope that, wherever he was now, he was at peace. She should have hated him for what he had done; or at least she thought that she should. All that she was able to feel was a deeply seated sense of pity. She could only begin to imagine what his life had been like, and she hoped that his death was a little more forgiving. She put the Doctor's umbrella beside the gently blowing robes, like a weapon lying beside a mighty warrior. She wanted a part of her beloved Time Lord to go with the man who had been responsible for his death. It seemed right, somehow, that some small part of them should go towards their separate destinies together.
It was quiet in the TARDIS. Now that Omega's hold was forever broken, the various parts of its internal machinery were working once again, and she could see new readings on the consoles and new lights flickering around her. The old humming sound was back, but still the place felt desolate and silent. She found it surprisingly easy to take the Doctor inside, but once she had laid him on the floor she felt her strength drain away. It was as though something had suddenly been taken from her; as if some last reserve of energy had been abruptly switched off. She sat down on the floor next to him, watching the doors as they closed. The rest of the universe was gone, shut off by those twin barriers of white which sealed her inside her transitory home with the body of her greatest friend.
"Oh Professor." Her shoulders were slumped and her head also hung, unable to hold itself upright. She reached out for the still hand, taking it in her own. She would have done anything - anything at all - to have restored the life to that motionless body; to have brought warmth back into its veins. She wanted to cry, but just as before the tears wouldn't come. In the end she merely curled up into a tight ball, her head resting on her knees. She wasn't sure when she closed her eyes, but sleep came, and the oblivion that it brought with it was welcome indeed.
She awoke with a start, with the strange sensation that a good many hours had passed, and uncurled herself feeling stiff and despondent. However long she had slept for, it did not feel like nearly enough. She stretched, turning her eyes to the body before her. She could hide from it no longer, and she began to wonder what she should do next. Should she try to take the body back to Gallifrey? She certainly couldn't sit here forever, wherever here was. Her gentle eyes surveyed the body, taking in the familiar clothes, rumpled and creased and as eccentric as the man within them. His head was turned slightly away from her, which surprised her. She was sure he had not been lying that way before. Hope burned suddenly through her, but she forced it down. He was dead; she had seen that herself. There was no way that...
"Oh..." The moan was low and indistinct, and she jumped more violently than she had ever done before. Slowly the figure before her sat up, rubbing its head in evident pain. "My head feels like it did on graduation night." He looked up, and a pair of entirely unfamiliar blue eyes blinked at Ace in confusion. "You must be Ace. It'll come back to me in a minute or two. At least, I'm rather hoping that it will."
"Who are you?" She jumped to her feet, fists at the ready. "What have you done with the Professor?"
"Don't be obtuse, Tegan." He frowned. "No, no - we'd decided that you were Ace. Hadn't we?" He did not seem entirely sure. "Why would I steal a body and then dress myself in its clothes? Especially ones that really don't seem to fit me terribly well." He stood up, and she got a glimpse of a tall, athletic body topped with a face that, despite its look of distinct confusion, seemed to glow with the joys of life. "I am the Doctor. Or at least, I think I am." He grinned sheepishly, a look that made him seem utterly charming. "Scratch that. I know that I'm the Doctor. And I must say it feels awfully good."
"You don't look like him. You don't even sound like him."
"No. No I know I don't. It can get pretty confusing for me too, you know. Suddenly getting a new body, a new head. A new voice even." He glanced down at his hands. "Seem to be a bit bigger. Remind me to duck when I go into my spare parts cupboard."
"This makes perfect sense to you, doesn't it." She was too confused to be pleased just yet, too unsure if there was anything to be pleased about. "Just what exactly-?"
"Later Ace." He held up a hand to forestall her words. "It's actually all rather simple. Well, maybe not simple exactly; but it is rather wonderful." He grinned broadly, and she felt herself beginning to warm to him, whether she wanted to or not. "Press that button over there could you? I'll explain as we go."
"But where are we going?"
He laughed at that, a bright, happy laugh that was filled with a strange sort of youthful exuberance. "Going? When do we ever set out to go anywhere? I just want to... to head out. Out there." He gestured rather wildly with one hand. "The universe. Time, space, all that sort of thing." He began flicking switches in an alarmingly haphazard manner, talking to himself all the while. "You know, don't seem to remember what most of these do. Sure it'll come back in time. Probably. Usually does. I think."
"But nothing, Ace. We have a universe to explore." He pressed the last switch and the time rotor began to rise and fall. The strange, tall figure with the ready grin and the extraordinarily bright blue eyes circled the console and threw an arm around his companion's shoulders. Strangely, she found that she did not seem to mind. "Somehow I feel as though I've been away for a very long time." A faraway look came into his eyes, and he turned away from her to stare at the scanner screen. Deep space was visible before them, stretching away into every imaginable direction. Ace suddenly felt very safe, and immensely happy.
"Once more into the breach..." she quoted to herself. The Doctor laughed.
"Exactly!" He gave the TARDIS an affectionate pat and sunk his hands into his pockets. "You know something? It's good to be back."