“I have to get out,” the Doctor moans.
The lacquered wood pressed up against her lips is equal parts wet and unresponsive and, frankly, tastes like shit. It’s not a new sensation.
“Can’t hear you, mate, you’ve got your head tucked in your arm.”
The Doctor lifts her eye with some difficulty. The world around her shifts back into its usual sort of upright shape, lights guided by a blaring techno rhythm twitching into focus as she blinks. “Sorry. Hello. Was I talking?”
“You were, a bit.”
“Right. I do that,” she mutters. “Used to do a lot more of it, but then a thing happened, and another thing and then the things stopped happening altogether for some reason and it’s mostly been a lot of this, really, lately and—” She gives the woman next to her an odd look. “I’m sorry, are you dead?”
The woman laughs, a warm sound that manages to rise above the club’s fairly determined schlager beat. She plants her glass down on the bar and stares at the Doctor from out of rough bone sockets. “Not to my knowledge, love.”
“It’s just that, you look sort of… dead.”
“You’re one to talk.”
“What? Oh. Oh, right, the lack of arm and the… the face, right?” The Doctor gestures vaguely at the right side of her head with her remaining fingers, dry bones and sinews poking out from where her right eye used to sit. “I keep forgetting all that’s there. Stupid of me. Then again, I keep drinking to forget when I should be forgetting to drink, and…” She shoots her new friend a conspiratorial grin. “Hello,” she says. “Call me Susan.”
“Delighted to meet you, Suze,” the not-dead woman says. She picks up her liquor glass again and lifts it in salute. “Call me Gotspe. Cousin Gotspe, if you care to get fancy.”
“...so they tried to get rid of me,” the Doctor says. The words feel heavy on her tongue, accompanied by an increasingly fuzzy texture on her teeth and some significant trouble clinging to her thoughts.
At this hour of the planet’s twin sun cycle, the club has turned itself into a café, a plasticky affair with yellowed tables strewn about the scratched-up floor. A waft of grease and limey soap asserts itself from the kitchen to mingle in with easy-listening schlock. The clientele around them, mostly furry faces stuck on cone-shaped heads, keep their eyes away from the two off-worlders.
“Sounds rough,” Gotspe says. She tries to find a new spot on the bar to plant her elbows without ruining her silk sleeves. “How’d they plan on that, then?”
The Doctor takes a gulp from her glass, grimacing at the taste. “Well, they exiled me,” she says. “Then exe… ex… excommunicated me? No, no hold on, that was Pope Formosus.” She lets out a throaty laugh. “Now he was proper dead.”
Gotspe smiles, tucking her own small glass beneath her mask’s beak for a sip. “Executed?”
“That’s the one! Bang, big explosion, gone el splatto, never would have existed in the first place.” She tries to wave her right arm around, realises too late where she went wrong, takes a moment to regain her balance on the bar stool. “Something something egregious crimes against the laws of time and decency and also, having breasts. But what they didn’t know,” she adds, pausing to burp and take another swig, “what they could never have suspected is that I… am... a massive outer space genius! ”
“Oh, I can just tell.”
“Don’t get clever now,” the Doctor says, half-grinning. “Anyway, this is ages after that time I offed myself, so I was already pretty used to the whole death… thing. And I was a man, before all that. Got flipped over ’cause I jumped. Did I tell you?”
“Honey,” Gotspe says calmly, “you’ve been sucking that topic’s teat like it’s the neck of a vodka bottle.”
“Had a good face. Handsome. Mighty beard when I forgot to shave.” She puts down her glass to scratch absently at her chin. “Still see that face at times, if I drink too much. It… talks to me. From bathroom mirrors and portholes and, and toilet bowls. A lot. Berates me. For being a woman. And the whole suicide business, I suppose. It’s not nice to me. I’m not. I’m not nice to me.” She frowns. “Where was I?”
“Being executed, I think.”
“Right! You’re good at this, you know, at this whole… sitting still, listening to me part. I like that.” She drags a finger lazily around the rim of her glass, enjoying the high-pitched squeaking it sings out. Briefly, she toys with the idea of letting the woman keep some memories of their talk. “So, I escaped,” she continues. “Bolted an oojamaflip to a whatnot, because I’m not just going to stand there and die, you know. Wasn’t going to fall for their trap.” Her hand nudges the glass into a tilted spin. “And I lost some bits. Bone bits. Face bits. Arm. All dematted. Gone swanning off without me. Or were never on me in the first place, I suppose. And here’s me left. Mostly.”
“Right,” Gotspe says.
“They conspired against me, my people, that’s the worst of it.” The Doctor wiggles her fingers in the air like stumbling puppets. “Two of them. Played their little bad cop, idiot cop games with me. Made me think they were letting me escape.”
“Well, you did, didn’t you?”
“No.” The word comes out with venom. “Yeah, I lived. But I didn’t escape. My Ship… she was destroyed. Thrown into never having been.” She plucks at the squiggly bits of hair still sticking from her head. “It’s just silence now,” she continues softly, “in all those spots where I used to hear her throbbing, hooked into my skull. Where she used to nestle and… and be mine. So now I’m stuck dragging my arse from one kitschy hellhole of a planet to another on all these rocket ships and barge vessels and tourist space-hoppers and…”
“And that’s not an escape.” The raw longing in her voice is only slightly undercut by a loud burp forcing its way through. “I’m not sure if it’s a life at all.”
“Why not just give up, then?” Gotspe asks. “No shame in that.”
“Because I have to keep going.” The Doctor drags her tongue across what’s left of her mouth. “I have to keep on being me. Even if it’s not a life, I… I won’t give them the satisfaction of my death. I killed myself once already. Won’t do it a second time.”
“Good for you, Suze,” Gotspe says. She smiles, the corners of her lips just peeking out from under her beaked bone. “I’ll drink to that.”
Both suns shine weakly through the glass doors by the time the place becomes a low-lit dive. The Doctor hums along to the tinny smooth jazz flowing from the speakers. The bartender barely spares her a glance as she navigates draining her bottle.
Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the door to the loos open and close, registering a moment later that the figure making its way back to the bar is Gotspe. Her new friend’s attention is caught by a group huddled around a corner table, all lace and robes and lavish hats, as varied in shape as in the weathered masks strapped to their faces. One of them grabs at Gotspe’s sleeve and motions to the Doctor.
Three blinks later, Gotspe is back on the bar stool next to hers, being served something clear and syrupy out of a jug. The Doctor keeps on staring at the curious group, all caught up in an elaborate game of dice and cards.
“Friends of yours?”
“You could say that,” Gotspe replies. Her hand, blotched with age, picks up her narrow little glass. “So, your theory?”
“Right, wait, let me start over.” The Doctor wraps her three fingers around the bottle’s neck to turn it upside down. A trickle of stale brew drips out over a pile of smoke stubs left across the bar. “What if this world,” she says, gesturing with the bottle, “this awful cosmos, right... see, what if it’s nothing but a big, massive fake?”
“What, like some kind of dream?”
“No, look— what if I’ve been snugly tucked away into some empty corner of the universe, where everything’s gone all topsy-turvy? Turgid… topside… bottled up?” She twirls the bottle in her hand for emphasis. It escapes from her fingers in a lazy arc before shattering across the floor. “Oh,” she says, staring at the shards. “Ah. Sorry ’bout that. Sorry. Happens a lot.”
Gotspe sips her drink, savouring the taste with a satisfied hum. She takes a long moment to set her glass back down. “A bottle,” she finally replies, looking the Doctor in the eye.
“Yeah. For me. Like my own little world to play in. And I have to…” The Doctor coughs and swallows down a gob of slime. “Have to escape. Whatever it is they want from me here, they won’t get it.”
“Shut up!” The Doctor clamps cold fingers over Gotspe’s mouth, swivelling around frantically to look behind her. The bartender stares back at her unimpressed, coming up from the floor with a dustpan full of shards.
“Ah,” she tries. “Hello, there. I mean, look, maybe you heard my friend here call me something a little bit silly but I’m not, you know—”
“Just don’t smash anything else,” the man says curtly, hurrying off toward the kitchen bins.
“Oh. Right, then. Goodbye.” She turns back around and leans in close to Gotspe. “You, shut up,” she whispers. “Never that name. They’ll find me if you use that name. It’s Susan now.”
“Mmmphfffffp,” Gotspe replies. She pries the Doctor’s fingers off her face and guides them out from under her beak. “Sure, whatever makes you happy, love.”
“Come on, don’t be like that. Your lot do it too, look at you! The mystery, the disguises!” She peers closely at Gotspe’s face through the bone gaps, squinting to see the woman’s pasty eyebrows shooting upward. “The silly masks!”
“Guilty as charged.” Gotspe moves her head away, drains her glass and smacks her lips.
“But you’ve noticed it, right? The changes? The... the filth that’s been sludging its way through the cosmos?”
As if in response, a figure elbows his way roughly in between them. The newcomer slaps his wallet on the bar with a wet squelch, ignoring the two women entirely. “Hey, baldy!” he yells at the back of the bartender’s head. “Another one!”
The Doctor stares at the man’s blue track suit, the inked knuckles, the fuzzy mullet draped across thick golden chains. His furred face shows a profound lack of interest in her scrutiny. He walks off with his brew a moment later, scratching at his exposed chest.
“Such as that,” the Doctor says, pointing glumly at the man’s back.
“Just a regular bloke wanting a drink. Bit of a rude cunt. No worse than you, though.” Gotspe plucks some coins out of her robe and holds them up, trying to catch the bartender’s attention. “What about him?”
“That, my friend, was a Sensorite!” The Doctor swivels around, feeling a sudden laughter bubbling up inside her. “And this …” She waves her arm grandly to encompass the bar, the listless crowd, the overflowing bins and retched-up puddles just outside the two glass doors. “This is the planet formerly known as the Sense Sphere! The most delicate place in the universe! An Empire of the mind, populated by people made of… of soggy cardboard! And just raising your voice a bit could, I don’t know, make their heads explode!”
“So they had a revolution. Grew up a little. It happens.”
“Oh, good grief. If only. No, it’s more than that.” She tries to stop herself from giggling, but her stomach seems to have settled on keeping up the heaving motion. “Every planet I’ve been to lately, every ship I’ve stowed away on, they’ve all been twisted out of shape. They’ve turned… I don’t know, wrong. Bad! Gaudy! You know?”
“What, more wrong than having to kill yourself to grow some tits?”
“No, that’s… that’s biogenic, isn’t it? That’s just how it goes. You destroy yourself, you flip your sex.” She’s vaguely aware of a new bottle being placed in front of her, and of her hand finding its way around it. “Right?”
“If you say so, love. It’s skittles and sutures for us mortals. Go on then, what else?”
“And these planets, they’re not even exciting-bad, you know?” Her words are getting somewhat faster than she can keep up with. “They’ve just been used and worn and spoiled and spent. Like someone covered them all in this… this massive pile of rubbish. The people, they’re all…” She can feel her belly still shaking, but the laughter seems to have left her lungs somewhere along the way. “They’re all becoming like me, is what I’m saying. Hopeless. Stuck. Getting rat-arsed in some club to end up chucking in a gutter. And I feel like I’m… I don’t know, like I’m spreading it.” The Doctor breathes in heavily. “Every city, every port, all this tacky filth crawls up around me like I’m at the nexus of some giant heaping mountain of vacuous crap.”
Gotspe holds her glass up at eye level, swirling the cream liquor into a churning little vortex. “What do you want me to do about it?”
“I don’t know. You can stay. Or wander off. Whichever. Or ignore me, like all these bloody Sensorites are doing. Ungrateful lot. Saved their whole planet once and this is the thanks I get.” She takes a sip. “It doesn’t matter anymore, does it? Because none of this is meant to happen. None of it. I’m not meant to be spending my life just… sitting. Talking at you. I’m supposed to be out there, running around, saving worlds. When I was a man, I—”
The Doctor blinks hard, her bottle raised halfway between the bar and her face. She brings it up to her eye and looks down into the sloshing liquid. “Oh,” she says. “Oh, shit. Oh shit, oh shit.”
“What’s wrong? Did they gob in it?”
“He’s in there again. Me, the old me, the…” She presses her eye tightly against the rim, trying to make out the face inside. She catches a glimpse of teeth and skin before she gets too dizzy to keep staring. With a shudder, she closes her eye and clutches the bottle to her cheek.
“Look at you!” her past self starts, and she feels her stomach clench up at the familiar voice. His words reverberate straight through the glass and dig into her mind. “Just sitting there, dull, useless, so drunk you might as well be dead already! To think I’d end up as some woman wasting my life away, to think I decided to jump when I could have—”
The Doctor tears the cold bottle from her face, stops herself at the last moment from flinging it across the room and manages to set it trembling back down on the bar. She covers her eye with her fingers, breathing hard to calm the violent sickness spreading through her guts.
“Doct— I mean, Suze,” Gotspe says, sounding concerned. “Susan, what’s happening?”
“I remember. Back home. But it’s all wrong, it’s—”
“Wrong how, dear?”
“Someone wanted me to do it,” she says with horror. She feels the fog in her mind parting, bits of clarity making their way through in goopy chunks. “It— it all felt so logical. Like I had this knowledge sat in my mind that if I’d jump, if I’d kill myself, I’d be regendered and I’d be able to hide out safely as a... oh, but that’s a load of rubbish, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes, I imagine so,” Gotspe says calmly. “What else?”
“I remember… almost, like grasping at a... on a Gallifrey where it was all so fluid, and we’d all just pop into our forms as easily as— well, I didn’t, I took off before I ever died but the others, my friends, Padrac and Kidist and Teb and everyone, when they died it didn’t matter who they ended up as, did it? It was all fine, all good, whether they were male or female or…” She rubs her temple hard, fighting to wrangle the memories into solid shapes. “And I remember, I remember now, suddenly knowing that my suicide would rebuild me as a woman, and feeling all that knowledge and all that shame eating their way right through my past like a… very hungry… terrible… impending… caterpillar…?”
Gotspe sips at her cream. “So what you’re saying is, your suicide cocked a ritual gun. So to speak.”
“Yes. Maybe! Am I? I don’t… I don’t know!”
“Now they want me to…” She clenches her fingers to her palm, feeling the rage bubbling up inside her. “To do it all again. Bio... biogenic... oh, I’ve been such an idiot, haven’t I?” The memories spill across each other in her mind, slippery and limp. “They want me to off myself again. That’s what it was all about— their sham of a trial, their regenderation bollocks, and that blithering idiot of a Time Arse with all his sticky-uppy hair leaving me his little note . ‘Don’t worry,’ it said, do you know? ‘You can leave any time you want.’ Making me think they hadn’t rigged my Ship to blow up. Just so I’d demat. So I’d kill myself again, or even worse, plunge myself into never having been.”
“Sounds to me like they wanted you to pull the trigger. As it were.”
“Pull the— right. Right! The gun, the— the ritual gun, right?”
With a sigh, Gotspe plonks down her empty glass. Two of the masked figures in the corner look up from their cards. “So what now?” she asks. “What’s next?”
“I’ll tell you what’s next,” the Doctor says, standing up. She wobbles precariously for a moment before turning straight toward the doors. “I’m going to hunt the bastards down.”
Their footsteps echo through the passageway, a stretch of cavern punctuated by ridged outgrowths hiding upright cracks.
“Not your average space-hopper, then,” the Doctor says appreciatively. She’s latched onto Gotspe’s arm in an effort to keep steady, happy to let the woman be her tour guide through the ship. The raised path spirals gently to her left, its pearl ceiling growing closer with each step, lit up by a red glow from the mossy strips on both sides of the walkway. The foxfire light casts drawn-out shadows on the concave tunnel shape.
“Where is this leading, exactly?” she asks, trying to steer her sloshed legs into a neat little line forward.
“To the centre.”
The Doctor stops and leans back to examine one of the left wall’s narrow fissures. Its cragged edges reveal dark figures moving past. “It’s a door,” she says after a moment. She untangles her arm from Gotspe’s and jumps off the path into the foxfire, running over to the next coarse slit to peer inside. More of the same cloaked outlines occupy the candle-lit enclosure here, walking around a central stone-cast dais.
“They’re all doors!” she exclaims. “Where do they lead to?”
“To the centre,” Gotspe repeats easily, tugging on the Doctor’s arm to guide her back onto the path.
“Oh. Right, that makes sense.” The Doctor steps across the passageway and stumbles toward the outer wall, touching her fingers to a slit torn from the ceiling to the floor at rough, uneven angles. “And these? The ones on the opposite side?”
“To the centre,” Gotspe replies, this time with a hint of smugness.
“But… oh, but that’s beautiful,” the Doctor says. She pushes her face against the stony edges, squinting to see the room beyond the gap. The exact same candle-lit backdrop greets her from this viewpoint, its masked figures now joined by a dozen or so more, identical in shapes and postures to the first. She watches as they move about with grace and purpose.
It takes a moment for the far end of the chamber to come wiggling into focus. As the details of it catch her eye, she realises with a shock that the wall is covered top to bottom with rows on rows of blindly grinning skulls. They stretch beyond her vision into darkness. The Doctor recoils from the sight, breathing in sharply.
“What’s wrong, Suze?”
“The, erm.” She swallows. “Skulls. In there. Quite a few of them, actually.”
Gotspe lets out a laugh. “Oh honey, I should have warned you, you’re in no state to realise they’re only fake.” She pats the Doctor’s shoulder reassuringly. “Plastic, cheap stuff. Just a little throwback to the Grandfather’s aesthetic. That edgy vibe was all the rage back in the day.”
The Doctor looks back slowly from the wall gap to her friend’s bare mask, the broad beak gleaming reddish in the light. A number of very important thoughts clamour for attention in her mind. She blinks to keep her eye on Gotspe, but her gaze is drawn to the long shadows on the wall behind the woman’s head, shifting and whispering their way up to the ceiling.
“There’s, uh. There’s shadows,” she blurts out, her voice shaking. “Up there. On the ceiling. Why are there shadows?”
Gotspe moves an arm across the Doctor’s shoulder. “Look at them, the little things. They’ve taken a liking to your own.” With her other hand, she points up at the Doctor’s silhouette cast on the milky surface, tracing the moving blotches as they merge. The Doctor follows her pale finger. “It’s probably your torn-off arm,” Gotspe continues, her voice warm with amusement. “They’re suckers for that look. Same as our Grandfather used to flaunt.”
The dark shapes push and pull the Doctor’s shadow, and she squirms a little as she feels them tugging at her limbs across the empty air.
“Fake skulls stuck in real nacre shell, loose shadows playing tag with my… with my own… it’s impossible, it’s fantastic, it’s— oh God, I’ve missed this so much .” The Doctor nudges back against the air experimentally, feeling the shadows yield under her grip and tickle at her stump. “This life, this excitement, this… this feeling .”
She steps back onto the path and hooks her arm into the silk crook of Gotspe’s elbow. “Tell me everything,” she sighs, leaning her head against the woman’s shoulder as they walk. “And hey, while you’re telling me all about… about this Faction and this ship and this big Grandfather of yours…” She smiles with what she hopes is her most endearing effort. “Do you think we could get something more to drink? I’m parched.”
“As you wish.” Gotspe bows her head a moment as she says it, and the Doctor wonders if the woman’s sudden deference is part of this life’s grandiose pomp or plain old sarcasm.
Distance and time break open gently to reveal a plush pod suite. Its only exit to the void of outer space is a thick transmat platform tucked into a niche, flanked by a row of pastel paintings on one side and a large star-scape window on the other. An inoffensively beige sitting space is occupied by two robed men.
A jolt of recognition runs across the Doctor’s shoulders at the sight of them. She glares at the two Time Lords through the filmy portal barrier, bracing herself for the confrontation.
“Admit it, the irony is delicious,” she hears Gotspe’s voice whisper behind her. “And she just wants to get some answers. Can’t blame her for that, can we?”
The masked figure closest to them, sporting stylet mandibles on bone, sort of grumbles in response. The Doctor ignores them both. The drinks of the past hours still course through her veins and in her haze, the faceless Faction crowd behind her seems a buzzing, blurred extension of her body.
“This place is rather a bore, don’t you think?” the taller of the two men on the sofa starts. The words sift through the barrier and reach the Doctor’s ear just slightly out of sync.
“To be honest, I can’t say I care much,” the second man responds in between bites from a small biscuit.
“I just thought the job would be a dashed sight more exciting.” The tall man frowns. “I mean, I’m hardly the first to complain about a bit of diplomatic sightseeing among the lesser species, but…” A pensive look crosses his face as he licks his lips. “Well, don’t you ever feel there must be more to life than shaking hands and signing forms? As it were?”
“Not really, no,” his bald colleague says, wiping his fingers on his robe. “What’s gotten into you? We went through all this trouble to get ourselves a nice and cushy pointless job, why would—”
In one fluid motion, the Doctor breaches the folds of space and leaps into the suite. The masked group follows a split-second later, pouring into the room around her from the shimmering hole torn in the air. She feels the weight of their cloaked presence as the two Time Lords turn their heads in her direction.
“Not you!” the tall one cries out loudly. His eyes grow huge with stupefied fear.
The Doctor strides toward them both, feeling her fury radiate around her. She allows herself a grin. “Yes me!”
The other Time Lord, crumbs stuck in his beard, looks so shaken that it almost makes her laugh. “She’s here to kill us!” he shrieks, raising his arms in front of his white head. “She’s coming for us from beyond the grave! ”
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic—” the Doctor starts, but in the blink of an eye the man scrambles off the sofa and over to the transmat platform by the wall. He presses his hands roughly to the buttons in his panic, staring back at the bone-faced group in trembling horror while the screen counts down to clear.
The Doctor hesitates, unable to decide whether to run for him or grab at his stunned colleague still sprawled across the cushions. Before she has a chance to move, the bald man jumps onto the charging platform with an anguished cry, glitching the countdown display between single digits as his fingers find the switch.
Harsh light envelops him before his limbs align across the centre target. It bursts across his form and takes apart his upper body. His screams are cut short as his hips and legs collapse onto the broken platform, framed by a little puff of smoke.
The tall Time Lord gets up slowly from the sofa. He stands gaping at the scene in perfect silence, unresisting as the masked crowd pads across the carpet to surround him. The Doctor’s hearts pound wildly in her chest.
Outside the window just beside the transmat pad, against the star-scape background of deep space, the top half of the bald man comes drifting into view.
“I never wanted this,” the Doctor breathes. Her stomach convulses at the sight of the pale body. She fights to keep herself from retching.
The Time Lord by her side looks slowly around the room, taking in the crowd of skulls and the abandoned pair of legs splayed on the platform. “I’m sorry,” he starts in a thin voice, “but can I just ask, what the hell is going on here?”
The Doctor puts her hand up to her forehead. “I just, I just wanted to get the truth out of you, I didn’t—”
She looks over at the window again almost compulsively, her eye drawn to the dead man’s form. Her breath hitches as she realises what she sees.
“I knew it!” she cries out, turning to the tall Time Lord. “Look at him, look!”
In the blackness outside, the floating torso starts to bulge, sprouting long strands of flesh that twine and thicken into legs as their light surges.
“Yes, very good, he’s regenerating! Huzzah, I say!” The tall man’s tone spits sarcasm. He looks around at his group of captors. “Well, what are you all waiting for!?”
His words are met by blank stares from the masked ensemble. A stifled chuckle comes from somewhere near the back.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” he shouts, his voice rising in pitch. “You really are the most useless bunch I’ve ever seen! Since apparently you don’t want him dead, aren’t any of you going to head out there and fetch him? Or do you all think floating in raw space is healthy for a chap?”
The Doctor takes a step toward him. “Your colleague,” she says, “he flicked the switch. He killed himself in his stupid panic. But, but his…” She shuts her eye a moment to let a wave of dizziness wash over her. The man’s face seems a lot closer when she looks at him again, and she realises she’s propped up against him, steadying herself against his chest. He draws back his head to avoid her breath, looking down his nose at her with one eyebrow raised in stark disgust.
“His, his body,” the Doctor continues harshly. “It didn’t commit your little crime, did it?” She punctuates her words by grabbing at his clothes. “Because the laws of Gallifrey don’t care what form we take! Do they? Do they!?”
“I… don’t follow you,” he says. He tries to back away, but the crowd of cloaks has formed a wall behind him. “What crime? What in blazes are you on about?” He winces at her face, his eyes darting across her mouth and missing cheek. “I— no, no no hold on, there’s something, a… regeneration… regend… my memories, you’re messing with my—”
“Tell me!” she roars. She can feel her patience breaking at his stammered lack of a response. Her hand shoots out to grab him by the sideburn as she jams her forehead up against his and makes contact.
When she comes to, wheezing for air, the plush floor of the suite is pressed against her shoulder. The man’s weight is crushing her beneath him, his arms wrapped tight around her back, long legs tangled up beside her own. He lifts his head from where he’d buried it against her neck and looks at her with all the wide-eyed yearning of a baby bird discarded from the nest.
In a rush of panic, she scrambles to escape from under his grip, desperate to get away from the shrill screeching in her ears. It takes her long seconds to realise the high voice is her own, screaming at the raw horror of this thing, this manikin of herself still barging through her mind. She pushes her hand hard against his face to snap the telepathic link.
“Take him away!” she cries out, twisting her body in a lost attempt to shove him off. A dozen hands appear from up above to drag him to his feet. The Doctor breathes in deeply when the weight is lifted off her, trying to stop herself from sobbing.
“He’s me,” she croaks out eventually. “Almost. Enough of me to make me feel—” She gags on her own words. Fragments of her past freefall through her consciousness, his memories of hunting her on Earth seen blinking from his eyes and stitched into crude patterns.
“I’m you,” the man’s voice echoes from beside her in pure wonder. His posh tone has all but melted off. Turning her eye toward him, the Doctor catches a glimpse of dark shapes chained around his legs. “Oh,” he says, “oh, but this is brilliant, isn’t it? This is—”
“Take him away! ” she screams again, still wheezing. The man’s voice stumbles to a halt. She swallows hard and moves her head toward the open-mouthed body inching past the window. “And him,” she says, trying to sound as commanding as she can. “The other one. Get him back in here. Get them away. Get me out. ”
“No,” the man starts. “No, no no no you don’t—”
Silently and grandly, Gotspe’s shadow weaves itself around his mouth and shuts him up.
The Doctor lets her head fall back against the floor. When pairs of warm hands drag her up and guide her out the room some minutes later, neither of the Time Lords is in sight.
“Whatever answer you’re looking for, you’re not going to find it at the bottom of that glass, you know.”
The Doctor sighs, motioning for Gotspe to join her at the bar. “I know,” she says. “It’s not coming together.”
Gotspe’s bar stool creaks as she sits down, its uneven legs wobbling along a moment to the pop ballad blasting from the speakers. With one sun low against the sky and the other out of sight, only a scattered few Sensorites and off-worlders still hang around the place.
“I’ve got all these… all these leads,” the Doctor says, barely looking at her friend. “The ritual, the people who want to see me dead. The memories stashed inside the other… me-thing. Patterns. Everywhere. It all revolves around me, it wants something from me, but I just…” She pauses to look around the room, her eye drifting across familiar plastic tables now dressed up with sauce bottles and fast food menus. “Why am I here again?”
“Have you tried thinking about things, you know, sober?”
“Tried to. Really tried.”
“Well.” The Doctor gestures vaguely at her glass. “What do you think?”
“Tell me about it,” Gotspe says, flagging the bartender with one hand.
“I… I mean,” the Doctor continues, “he, I… wanted me to kill myself. Wanted me to demat. And you know what, I can’t even say I’m shocked that he’s part of my...” She sighs deeply again. “Somehow... I knew, really, when I found his note in my Ship, when I took off, that I’d walked right into their trap and... and I was ready. To just throw it all away. I didn’t find the will to go on, to fight back, until I’d already lost…” She points at the right side of her body. “You know.”
The Doctor frowns at Gotspe. “I’m sorry, what?”
The woman’s head is turned away from hers, a drink pushed up under her mask.
“—down here, come on, come on—”
The Doctor looks down into her glass. The face of the tall Time Lord stares back at her, talking at her in wild panic.
“—to help me, they’ll come back any minute and I can’t maintain this link for—”
“No!” the Doctor shouts at him. “I won’t have it!” She ignores the way Gotspe’s beak swivels toward her. “All of you yelling at me from bottles and soup bowls and sinks and— and, just leave me alone! ”
With all her strength, she flings the glass away from her. It shatters into pieces on the far wall. A silence falls over the place, letting the easy melody from the speakers fill the room before the murmur of conversation flows back in a moment later.
The bartender walks past her with his dustpan, ignoring her pale face. “Just don’t smash anything else,” he tells her, his voice as curt and nonchalant as hours before.
The Doctor blinks, fighting to keep the world in focus. “Sorry,” she says. “Brain went spinning there for a moment, I’ve got this… this hamster…” She tilts her head in Gotspe’s direction. “What were you saying?”
“Oh, Suze,” Gotspe replies. Her voice cracks as she sets her turquoise drink down carefully on the bar. “This is too good.”
A sudden dread creeps up the Doctor’s back. She sits up straight. “You what?”
“I mean, I get to do the big dénouement. Oh, I’ve been looking forward to this. Okay. Okay, here we go.” The woman shifts on her bar stool with a gleeful little bounce. “You want to know what’s happening out there? What’s really going on in this whole big, scary cosmos?”
Keeping her eye fixed on Gotspe’s mask, the Doctor forces herself to piece the words together. “I don’t… I don’t think I like where this is going,” she mutters.
“War,” Gotspe continues. “Big one. Massive. The whole universe, all the stars and strings and planets, ramming into each other’s ends and dripping from time’s cracks.” She giggles. “Oh, that came out wrong. Do you think it’s starting to affect me?”
The Doctor grabs hold of the bar’s edge to keep steady. “To affect—”
“And I’m sorry to say, this War’s not exactly starring you. But we still needed one of you so, you know, we tried to pluck him out of time. Only he slipped through our fingers, smug bastard, ended up…” Gotspe waves at the scene around them. “Well, here. Got moulded and twisted into part of this world’s horrid crap. He became Gallifrey’s agent of all things. Got to hand it to time, it’s got a sense of humour. Guess it knew you’d make a lovely useless twat.”
The Doctor tries to swallow down the nausea rising in her throat, the quickly mounting panic. “Give him back,” she hears herself blurt out.
“You wish,” Gotspe scoffs.
“I’m not kidding.” Grasping for clarity, the Doctor squares her shoulders, finding a sudden strength inside herself. “Give him back. Now. That’s an order, Cousin.”
“What’s gotten into you, then?”
The Doctor takes a deep breath. “I command you to give him back! I command you, in the name of Grandfather Paradox!”
Gotspe’s voice erupts into wild, ungraceful cackling. Some Sensorites around them move a step or two away. Her arms move to unclasp her mask, the shoebill skull falling away to reveal a human face as leathery and wrinkled as her hands. She rests the bone mask in her lap, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. “Oh, my God,” she says after a long moment. “Okay, once more just for fun.” Her voice sounds sugar-sweet, and she purses her lips in mock innocence. “Doctor, what’s happening? ”
“Stop. Stop it. I’m not that stupid, you know,” the Doctor says. “I mean, I know what I’m like. These days. I know my mind isn’t as clear as I’d want it to be. But I still got one over on you and your little group of friends.”
“Did you really?” The woman’s body still jolts slightly, her teeth clenched in a bad attempt to stop herself from giggling.
“When I had a bit of a look around your ship. Shrine. Terrifying mass grave. Thing. You didn’t honestly think I’d fall for that, did you? I mean, fake plastic skulls? Seriously? ”
“It’s a fair cop,” Gotspe replies. Her broad grin almost reaches her ears.
“And I figured it out along the way. Your big mythical leader. The man with the one arm. Grandfather Paradox.” She steels herself for Gotspe’s response. “He’s me as well. Isn’t he? Aren’t I?”
Gotspe sips her drink and drags her teeth across her lips. She sets down her glass again and clears her throat. “Look, picture a dead end,” she says, her hands moving to frame the air in front of her. “Like a conceptual cul-de-sac. Or, I don’t know, a lobster creel if you’re hungry. Actually, are you feeling peckish? ’Cause I could go for—”
The Doctor slams her hand down on the bar. “Get to the point!”
“Alright, keep your head on.” Gotspe moves one spotty hand to cover her other, the frame between her palms narrowing to a tapered little slit. “A blind alley. Time entering one end and staying in, echoing off the walls. Back and forth. Back. Forth.”
The Doctor’s gaze drifts through the grimy glass plates in the front doors, to the grey-bricked alleyway outside. Her stomach knots with sudden realisation. “Losing momentum with each ricochet,” she whispers. “Becoming fainter. Duller.” She can feel her mind trying to grasp the implications, flailing wildly every which way to make sense of all her past. “Would be bad enough to stick a human in a world like that, but to… to have a Time Lady, to have someone like me carrying the Imprimatur interfering in that crapsack hell-world of a…” She closes her eye. “Any thought I have,” she chokes out. “Any fear . Bouncing around through time, warping reality retroactively from every spot it touches. Oh, I can conquer Daleks and Trods and Quarks but I’ve got bigger demons than those, don’t I?”
“You’ve got some twisted things up in that head of yours, Suze,” Gotspe says. “Scared of death and scared of life.” She gestures at the apathetic Sensorites around them. “Scared of being ignored by the very people you once rescued. Shoving every bit of that paranoia into every planet you set foot on. You’ve changed your Sense Sphere into Bristol on a Thursday night and for what? Fear of being normal? Or, what, some kind of tucked-away desire to go native with the chavs?”
The Doctor keeps her eye shut tight, trying to block out Gotspe’s words. A surge of bile pushes its way out her throat and seeps onto her tongue.
“All your little fears and hates and wants,” Gotspe continues. “Ending up braided tight into the world around you. Overwriting time. Flushing out all that excitement you say you’re so hungry for.” She grimaces a moment. “And don’t get me started on this timeline’s hang-ups about switching sex. What was it, you think, that shoved that nonsense about suicide into Gallifrey’s long history? Did your past self’s yelling plant that seed?”
With great effort, the Doctor forces the burning taste back down into her guts. It takes her another long, deep breath before she finds the strength to speak. “You’re going to tell me it was me who made this world, right?” she asks softly. “Future me, I mean. When I become the Grandfather. When I decide to start your freaky little cult.”
“Oh, honey, don’t flatter yourself.” Gotspe sips from her glass. “You’re not Grandfather Paradox. That would be silly.”
“Oh.” The Doctor opens her eye and stares down at her stump, touches her fingers to the empty space around her mouth. “Oh. Right.” She feels her mind trying to re-adjust and re-align, utterly failing to come up with a new action plan. “But… then what? What the hell could have caused all this?”
The Doctor blinks. “I’m sorry?”
“Loose Mandrel. Tripped and fell. Far as we can make out, right into time’s axis.” Gotspe takes another sip, watching the Doctor’s face with glee. “Rewrote time. Got up, got dragged back in. Rewrote time. Got up. Got dragged back in. You get the idea. Oxbowed this whole mess of a timeline. We’re pretty sure that’s what the other you was after when we cast our nets for him, but it doesn’t matter much now, does it?” She gives a rueful little smile. “I’m sorry, Doc. There’s nothing to be done.”
Without warning, the Doctor grabs at Gotspe’s robe and digs her hand into the fabric. “Take me the hell away from here!” she yells, pulling herself up toward the woman’s face.
“You’re still not getting it,” Gotspe says. She stares down at the bunched-up silk around the Doctor’s fist. “You’ve been abstracted from causality. All of this timeline has. If we tried to take you out…” She shrugs, peeling the Doctor’s fingers from her robe. “You’d crumble in our hands.”
“Crumble,” the Doctor echoes flatly. Another set of thoughts crashes together in her mind and merges into terrifying shapes. “You... you only needed me to get to him.”
“Kind of, yeah,” Gotspe says. “If you want to get technical, we didn’t need you to begin with. Just your biodata for the tracking.” She bites her lip. “My orders were to steal a glass you’d gotten gattered from, get some of your spit and leave you none the wiser. Guess I screwed that one up pretty badly. But you know what, I don’t get out much these days, you know? None of my lot can appreciate a drink and a nice chat, bunch of swotty fuckers.” A sly grin sneaks onto her face. “To be totally honest, I just wanted to have my own little adventure with the famous Doctor.”
The Doctor puts her fingers to her temple as her vision starts to blur. “You’ve got him now. And I’ve…” She rubs hard at her eye. “I’ve handed him to you.”
“What did you think he was?”
“Construct,” the Doctor manages. “By-product. Bits of timeline. Mine, I mean. Just… stuff dredged from my lives and... smushed together.” She tries to jam her hands together to illustrate, but only succeeds in grabbing empty air.
“Yeah,” Gotspe says. She drains the last of her drink with a long, slow movement and licks the wet rim clean. “Yeah. Maybe you are.”
Deep inside her chest, the Doctor’s lungs clench shut around her breath.
“I’m so sorry, Doc,” Gotspe says, putting down her glass. She fishes a handful of coins out from her pocket and scatters them across the bar. “You’re a good sort. Really. Whatever else finds you, keep that in mind. You were a good one.” With a flourish of her pompous robe, she gets up and reties her mask. “And I wish you all the best. Wreck the timeline any way you like. Godspeed in this world of crap.”
“Wait,” the Doctor says. She moves to untangle her legs from her bar stool, but the world around her dips and wavers. She lands hard on her knees while her hand grabs at the floor’s grey, hairy tiles. “Come back here!”
Without a word, Gotspe walks through the doors and out of sight.
“Get over here!” the Doctor screams. Her voice stings harshly at her throat. “I won’t let you get away with this! I’ll find you, I’ll find every one of—”
Her wailing is cut short as her stomach finally heaves and all the sickness, bile and booze of the past day come flooding from her mouth.
From somewhere far above, filtered through slushy music and indifferent conversation, the bartender approaches with a mop.