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Past Life Regression

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1.

 

It should’ve felt like a good day. Certainly compared to recent ones. They’d won. Sort of. The Praxeus virus was gone. Left a lot of chaos in its wake, but the Doctor liked to get out of the way before that bit started. Now and then she felt a twinge of guilt. Maybe she should stay, mop up a few dead birds, but then you stay and clear up the debris from one would-be invasion and you’d end up tidying after yourself every time. And there wouldn’t be any time to fight the next load of aliens. Because there was always a next one. 

So today, in that quiet little moment alone in the console room, everyone else gone home for a bit but promised to return the next day after lunch, the Doctor should’ve been in a good mood. Should’ve been. Wasn’t. Despite her best efforts, she’d barely managed to keep up her usual, chipper demeanour ever since Gloucester. Ever since meeting Ruth. 

She growled and thumped a fist down on the TARDIS console as, once again, the display screen bleeped and flashed the response, ‘No results found’. Nothing for Ruth Clayton. Nothing for the other Time Lord, Gat, who’d been chasing Ruth… the Doctor still couldn’t bring herself to think of Ruth Clayton as ‘the Doctor’ or ‘herself’ for that matter. Ruth’s having no entry in the TARDIS database made sense, if it was just a human alias, but there should’ve been something on Gat. But nothing. So either that was an alias too, or, more likely, all the records surrounding the Time Lord officer had been erased or locked away. Not as if she could just pop home and check either. 

The Doctor sighed and slumped down on the steps by the console, leaning her chin on her knees and staring blearily at the unhelpful monitor screen. If she closed her eyes, she could still see the image of Gallifrey in ruins, something she’d hoped never to have to see again. What was the point of it all, everything they’d done throughout the Time War, if it was all to end in flames again? 

Around her, the console room hummed with a steady pulse, the heartbeat of the ship, but it was too quiet to think. No matter how many times she’d tried to convince herself she worked better alone, the Doctor had to admit, it was easier when she had people to bounce ideas off. There were some ideas though that she had better keep to herself. They wouldn’t understand. To them it would just be a mystery and they’d all want to pitch in and help. The Doctor smiled faintly to herself. It wasn’t just a mystery though. It was her life. She couldn’t risk dragging them all down the rabbit hole if she didn’t know what was waiting on the other side. And that, the Doctor thought, was the heart of it all. A very large part of her worried that what was waiting, the part of her life that had been hidden away, was not something she would like, let alone would want her friends to see.

Moping around was doing nothing though. She found herself thinking of previous travelling companions, Amy, Bill, Martha, Rose… every one of them would tell her to get up off her arse and they were right, those ghostly voices of the past. There had to be something. If there weren’t any answers in the database then she’d have to find another source. An idea had been brewing for a while, but she’d kept it pushed away. It wasn’t the most sensible idea. In fact, it was downright dangerous and against almost every law of time there was. But then, who would tell her off? Not the Time Lords. They were gone. And she needed to know the truth. 

Resolved, she nodded to herself then got up, and paced around the console a few times, trying to settle the idea down in her brain, so it would go from a vague notion to an actual plan. She should know exactly where and when the best place was. All she had to do was remember. Where else to look for the secrets of the past but in the past itself? The only real question was where to start. Who might be the easiest to talk to? 

‘Right,’ she said, to no one in particular. ‘Maybe start with one of the nicer ones, and see where we go from there.’

 

 

2.

 

A long time ago – a couple of lifetimes in fact – a little girl once told the Doctor that when she wanted to find lost things, she’d go to somewhere quiet to have a think. Sound advice back then. Sound advice now. The Doctor could even remember where she’d gone to find that quiet place, and stepped out of the TARDIS on a damp, green field looking towards it. St John’s monastery on the Cumbrian coast, and if she’d got her co-ordinates right, it would be the year 1207AD, a Wednesday, and just after Matins. Not too early then. 

She breathed in the fresh air for a minute, hearts beating a little quicker than usual though she told herself that absolutely was not nervousness at the thought of going in there. She couldn’t feel any devasting temporal anomalies around her. You would feel it, wouldn’t you, if your very presence was unravelling the Web of Time? So it was fine. Five minutes, in and out, nothing for Time to worry about.

It was only as she reached the studded oak doors that she thought about the practicalities of trying to enter a thirteenth century monastery as a woman in cropped trousers and a rainbow shirt. So, just as she raised her hand to knock, she turned a hundred and eighty degrees and jogged back to the TARDIS. So, a little more than five minutes. Still didn’t feel like the universe was imploding though. She found an old hessian robe in a kind of mouldy-looking greenish-grey and shoved it on. It itched and smelled of sheep, but that would probably fit in around here. This time when she reached the door she knocked and smiled brightly at the sallow-faced monk who peered at her through the iron judas grille.

‘Morning,’ she said, holding the psychic paper up to the little window. ‘Come from… the Abbey at Sheffield. I need to speak to the Doctor.’

A sliding panel scraped quickly into place and covered the grille. The Doctor listened but the door was too heavy to allow any footsteps or conversations to seep through, so instead she busied herself inspecting the carvings around the arch surrounding the doorway and tried not to grow impatient as the seconds stretched out into minutes, and then into tens of minutes. 

‘Oh, get a shift on, there’s a universe at stake here,’ she muttered, but at the same moment the panel slid open again and she turned, adopting her most innocent, friendly and nun-like stance as the monk eyed her again through the grille. 

‘The Doctor is in meditation,’ said the monk. ‘He’s not to be disturbed.’

She’d been ready for this. ‘The Doctor is and always has been completely disturbed, so my being here’s not going to change that. But if it’ll speed things on a bit, say these words to him. These exact words, mind.’

She leaned forward and spoke to the monk’s pale ear through the grille. He frowned when she was finished, but nodded and hurried off, leaving the panel open this time so she could, when she stood on tiptoe, see through the little square cut into the door into a rain-slicked courtyard beyond. She watched the monk cross to the far side then lost him when he disappeared behind a stone wall. More like thirty minutes than five, but the universe and Time were still intact, so far as she could sense it.

Finally, just as the rain began to spit again and turn the already sodden ground at her feet to mud, the monk shuffled back across the courtyard. This time, The Doctor heard the groan of heavy metal bolts being drawn back, and the hefty door swung inwards to admit her. 

‘This way, Sister,’ said the Monk, bowing. The Doctor allowed herself a smile. So far so good, though she’d known that little phrase would do the job. A bit of a dirty trick, mind, but it was only herself she would upset in the process and she was sure she’d get over it. In time.

The monk led her first into the cloisters, where a few of his brethren regarded her with overt suspicions, pausing to mutter to each other beneath their cowls as she passed. She wondered if it was because she’d asked to see the Doctor or if they just hadn’t seen a woman in a few decades. 

At the end of the cloister, the monk opened a square, wooden door with rusted iron furnishings, and started down a flight of spiralling stone steps on the other side. He took a torch from a bracket on the wall as he passed, but there wasn’t one for the Doctor so she was forced to stay close and keep in his shuddering pool of light. The stairs spilled out eventually onto a narrow passage that, from the style of the brickwork and the general air of claustrophobia, might actually have been inside the monastery walls. The smell of damp and a faint odour of decay was far stronger here and even the oily smoke coming from the torch couldn’t dispel it. 

‘I’ll wait here,’ he said, and paused where a shallow flight of steps led down through an archway. He stepped back to let her pass. Trying to look as nonchalant as possible, despite the growing feeling that this wasn’t as good an idea as she’d first thought, the Doctor walked down the steps and into the large chamber that lay beyond the arch.

The smell of the room hit her at once and brought back a flood of memories. Tallow, linseed oil, old straw and mould. She remembered its lichen-covered stone walls, the way the candlelight made shadows dance around the old, wooden bed, the shelves of books and parchment, and the narrow writing desk. And, of course, the easel. The only occupant was sitting on a three-legged chair, facing the canvas when she ventured in and she saw, in the capricious light from the candles, the portrait of a young, dark haired girl, painted from memory,  and written along one corner, the same words she’d used to gain entry into this dank little cell. Run, you clever boy, and remember.

The man by the easel looked up slowly, though his face was hidden in the shadows of his cowl. The Doctor felt his gaze on her, studying her, and could even feel the slight trace of disappointment, saw it in the way his shoulders sagged. She knew who he’d been expecting to see. The same face, just a different version. If she wanted to, she could’ve ended all this brooding there and then and told him why he’d come across the same girl twice now in two completely different times and different places, and why each time he’d seen her die, but that would change things too much. She might just get away with coming here for a short while, crossing her own timestream in this way, but something like that, that really would unravel worlds. 

‘Hiya,’ she said, and felt instantly foolish. ‘Not who you were hoping for, I know, and I’m sorry if I wasn’t exactly honest in getting in here, but I really need to talk to you, and kind of figured you wouldn’t be too keen unless I could pique your interest.’

‘Who are you?’ he asked. His tone wasn’t unfriendly, but there was no warmth in it either. Suspicion, and just a touch of weariness.

‘Well, you’re probably not going to believe this, but…’

He stood up suddenly and threw back his hood. There was the face she remembered, though the chin looked a bit bigger from the outside. Maybe it was the light. Good hair though. He glared at her, and she felt not only his stare but the prod of telepathic contact, so she gave him a wave and a smile.

‘Yeah, like I said. Probably not going to believe it.’

‘What are you doing here?’ he asked, keeping his voice low and looking around as if he expected eavesdroppers to be hiding in the walls. ‘This is…’

‘Against all the laws of time, yeah, I know. Like you’ve never done it.’

‘Not on purpose,’ he said. 

‘Look, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t an emergency. I only need a couple of minutes and then I’ll leave you to your… contemplation or whatever you’re doing. But I need to ask you something and I need you to be straight with me.’

‘If you’re me, then you know everything I know.’

The Doctor shrugged. ‘More or less. A few hazy bits here and there. Ours heads have been messed around with a fair bit.’

‘True. That is true.’

‘But, that’s sort of what I wanted to talk to you about,’ the Doctor went on. She perched on the edge of the bunk, not wanting to seem too comfortable or too prepared to stay long. Eventually, as she explained what had happened with Ruth, finding the other TARDIS buried by the lighthouse, Gat’s arrival and the subsequent confrontation with her and the Judoon, the other Doctor settled back down onto his chair by the easel and seemed to relax a little, no longer looking ready to run at the slightest provocation, though his brow remained furrowed.

‘So, that’s it,’ she said. 

For a long time he just stared off into an empty patch of space between them, looking thoughtful, then he shook his head. 

‘I’ve no idea about any of this,’ he said. ‘But then, if I did know something, then so would you, so really was there ever any hope of my knowing anything?’

‘Yeah, I suppose,’ the Doctor conceded. Part of her had hoped going back a little into her own history, she’d find some sort of wall she didn’t know about, something that had happened to one of her former selves that stopped her remembering chunks of her life, but if that was the case, she wasn’t going far enough back yet. Then she found herself glancing at the portrait again. She knew who the girl was, why she was the way she was, why she was scattered throughout time and even where she would eventually die, but she couldn’t tell him any of it. For the first time she wondered if there might not be a similar reason for her not knowing. Perhaps she would find out in time, when all the pieces were in place. Maybe she should just find a quiet place like he’d done and wait. Then she spotted a rat scurrying along the far wall, disappearing beneath the bookshelf, and the idea evaporated.

‘Well,’ she said, getting up, ‘guess I’ll keep trying.’

‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’ the other Doctor asked. ‘I mean, surely no matter how many of us you track down, no one’s going to know anything?’

‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘Still, it’s the only idea I’ve got for now.’

‘You’re not actually going to try all of us, are you?’

The Doctor hesitated. She hadn’t planned on doing that. For one thing, she was so far down the line, it’d take ages.

‘Nah,’ she said at last. ‘Probably just the one more. Like you say, it’s most likely a waste of time.’

She turned to go but could still feel him scrutinising her, and so glanced back and saw him with his head to one side.

‘Is it…’ he began. ‘Is it weird?’ He made a vague gesture towards her figure.

‘Is what weird? Oh, the… At first maybe. You get used to it though.’

‘Have you…’

‘Have I what?’

He looked away, and she could see him thinking how to phrase his question. ‘Just, well, I always thought if I turned out to be a girl, first thing I’d do was try on all sorts of dresses and stuff…’

‘Overrated,’ said the Doctor. ‘Believe me, I tried loads of stuff. First off, half of those outfits, you need someone else to actually get you into them, ‘cause they put the zips and everything round the back or up the side where you can’t reach it. And second, no pockets. So what’s the use of that?’

‘Suppose,’ the other Doctor said, but she could see he was disappointed again.

‘Anyway,’ she went on. ‘Amount of running we do, just makes more sense to avoid evening dresses. Not very practical.’

‘Not as much fun though.’

‘You do it then.’

She could tell from his expression that he was seriously considering it, so she left him at that point and made her way back through the monastery.

 

 

3.

 

So, not the most successful of expeditions but at least nothing exploded and nobody died. Got to be a plus. The Doctor set the TARDIS in flight but let her drift in the vortex without setting the destination properly, giving herself time to think. She hadn’t really had any reason for singling out that particular version of herself other than that he was, on reflection, one of the slightly less abrasive personalities she’d enjoyed across the centuries, but just because he didn’t know anything didn’t mean she wasn’t onto something here. 

There was still her theory about preserving the timeline. Maybe one of them knew something but was keeping it back from her. Though that would make more sense if it was someone in her future rather than her past, she admitted, but there was always the possibility that one of her former selves had deliberately blocked something to keep it hidden. Or had had that secret blocked from him. And who would do that? The Time Lords, obviously. So… 

The Doctor really wished she had an audience now, as she paced around the console room, tapping her fingers against her lips as she tried to crystalise her idea. …if the Time Lords were the most likely culprits behind this conspiracy, and let’s face it, who else? Then someone, one of her other selves, who’d had regular dealings with Gallifrey back in the day, might’ve come across something. She’d been president a few times. One of them could’ve found something in the Matrix. Might not even have realised what they were seeing at the time and forgotten about it, thinking it was just mental white noise. But if she could jog their memories now, then she’d remember as the effect rippled down the timeline. In theory. 

So, she thought, former presidents. There was her incarnation with the long scarf. He’d been on Gallifrey a couple of times, though in the middle of assassination attempts and an alien invasion. She also found it hard to think of any point in his lifetime where he’d been still. He, more than any of them, always seemed to be running. She couldn’t recall him ever taking a holiday. Every time he tried, like that time in Paris or Oxford with Romana, some kind of life-threatening disaster always appeared. Like he attracted trouble. A few people had said that, mind you. Probably was true, the Doctor admitted. So maybe not him. Not yet anyway. Why not try the next in line? He also had the advantage of being another on the Doctor’s list of personalities she wasn’t utterly ashamed of, behaviour-wise. Another of the nicer ones. And he had the advantage of being a creature of habit. She set the co-ordinates for the Eye of Orion.

‘Been meaning to go back anyway,’ she muttered, tapping the console as she waited for the relatively short flight to complete. No reply came. No one asked her, ‘meaning to go back where?’ or ‘So what is this place, Doc?’ or anything like that and once again it hit her how large and quiet the console room seemed when she was the only one in it. Especially when she could feel the TARDIS itself regarding her with suspicion and disapproval. 

It’d become very judgmental since this latest regeneration, the Doctor thought. A memory flashed like lightning across a cloudy sky and she was on a living planet, covered in junk, talking to the TARDIS in the body of a woman called Idris. Back then she’d had the impression that the TARDIS fancied her a little bit, back when she was all big chin and floppy hair and bowties, and if she wasn’t mistaken, the feeling had only strengthened throughout her next life. Especially the longer her hair had grown for some reason. So maybe the TARDIS was just being catty, taking time to adjust to having a ‘she’ instead of a ‘he’ at the helm.

‘Well, get used to it,’ she said under her breath. A loud clunk resounded in the room and for a moment, the Doctor thought the ship had gone into a sulk, until she realised they’d landed. 

Outside the air was damp and charged with a faint smell of ozone and freshly washed greenery. Though the sky was completely overcast, it wasn’t raining and the day was bright, not warm but not too cold either, like an afternoon just as the summer turned to autumn. The threat of something bitter on the wind, but never quite arriving to spoil that day. The few trees that spotted the sprawling meadows were leafless, but recent rain had left the grass and hedgerows a vibrant, almost luminous green. Here and there, ruins of a civilisation so old no one could even remember its name rose like clods of mud from amongst the weeds and wildflowers, and besides the occasional whisper of the wind through leaves and blades of grass, or a complex bout of song from a bird hidden somewhere in the blood-red bushes in random spots, the place was utterly silent. The Doctor took a deep breath, feeling instantly better and refreshed. It really had been too long.

‘It’s the high bombardment of positive ions,’ she said, to no one in particular. Really should bring the fam here sometime. Graham would love it here. Absolutely nothing to do. Give him a deckchair and an audiobook to sleep through, he’d be in heaven. But still, things to do first. She looked around for landmarks she recognised. The ruins were the best pointers amongst the ever-changing plant-life, so she headed for the remnants of a gothic arch a few hundred metres away, at the crest of a low hill.  

Once she reached the arch, she could see trails of freshly-trodden grass like scars across the meadow, converging behind another piece of tumbledown wall amongst a gathering of threadbare trees that formed a low copse, ringed with more of the red thornbushes. Faint spatters of conversation drifted upwards, too far off to make out, but it told her she was headed in the right direction. 

As she drew nearer and changed her angle of view, she spotted a battered-looking police box tucked in behind the wall, just visible through one of the old windows. The sight of it was enough to quicken her pace to a brisk jog but just before she came to the ruins, she paused, remembering that this wasn’t, after all, something she ought to be doing and her former incarnation might not be too happy at her just bumbling in unannounced. Better to be cautious, even if this was another of the nice ones. 

She could make out the voices more clearly now. A strident Australian accent that took her right back to various arguments about the best way to get the Heathrow and how they never ever seemed to get to there and all sorts of things that always seemed to wind right back round to something airline-related, and then a softer, male voice, a little sly in its tone. They seemed to be the only ones talking. No Nyssa, only Tegan and Turlough, so that helped her place herself a little in her timeline. So where was…

‘Can I help you?’ said a voice right behind her. She’d been listening so hard to the other two beyond the wall that she hadn’t heard anyone come up behind her and now she jumped a good couple of inches off the ground. After a second, when her heartbeats had calmed down to something near a normal rate, she turned and found a young, blond man in what looked like an Edwardian cricketer’s outfit smiling at her from beneath the shadows cast by the brim of his panama hat.

‘You scared the life out of me,’ she said. ‘I’m…’

His smile faltered. Telepathy. Always there when you didn’t want it.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I know. You really shouldn’t be here, you know.’

‘Yeah, I know. Look…’

He glanced through one of the old stone windows as if checking his companions were out of earshot, then walked with her a few paces further off just to make sure.

‘I take it you’re behind the strange effect I’m feeling here.’

‘Am I?’

‘Sharp pains,’ he said, tapping his chest between his hearts. ‘A feeling that something’s suddenly missing. Been building in strength ever since we arrived here. Almost like someone’s playing around with my timeline, cutting off small pieces…’

‘Oh,’ said the Doctor, catching up. ‘No, nothing to do with me. That’s…’ She stopped herself from saying, ‘Borusa, with the Time Scoop’, because firstly it sounded like a line from Cluedo when it popped into her head and secondly because she’d already told herself she wasn’t going to interfere any more than necessary. Just being there was enough of a danger to Time without her opening her big mouth and giving the game away. 

‘Not me,’ she said finally, giving what she hoped was a reassuring smile. 

‘Oh,’ said the Doctor, the other one. He frowned, and she could tell what he was thinking. If it wasn’t her, then there was something more menacing going on. ‘Then why are you here?’

‘Just a few quick questions,’ she said, and went on to give her now practiced account of the last few months’ events, though she could tell a lot of it went over his head. A lot had happened in eight regenerations. 

‘So,’ she concluded, ‘like, when you were on Gallifrey, not long ago, did you see or hear anything at all, anything strange that maybe, with all the rest of it going on, you didn’t think was important but now you’re thinking, ‘ooh, maybe…’ Anything at all?’

‘Only that the Time Lords were very keen to have me destroyed.’

‘Not exactly new though, is it?’

‘It is rather becoming a habit with them,’ he admitted. ‘But no, not that I recall. I was rather more concerned with stopping Omega at the time, however.’

‘I know. Just thought I’d ask.’ She could see the words, ‘If I knew, you’d already know’ forming in his mind, and decided to pre-empt them. ‘Thing is, and I know this is a bending the laws of Time a little, but this is important, but I happen to know you’ll be back on Gallifrey soon.’

‘Really?’ he asked wearily. ‘Why will they want to kill me this time?’

‘Long story,’ said the Doctor. ‘Can’t really tell you. Spoilers, you know?’

‘What?’

‘Never mind. But thing is, when you’re there, you’ll remember this conversation now, so if you do see or hear anything at all that might fit in with something I’ve told you, anything at all that suggests what we both know as our lives isn’t the whole truth, you’ll notice it now. That actually works out better than I thought. I was trying to catch you after all that business in the Death Zone but this way’s much easier.’

‘Business with the what?’

‘Ah. Nothing. Forget I said that. Anyway, thanks.’ 

She reached over as an instinct and straightened the sprig of celery pinned to his lapel, which had started to sag a little to one side, then hurried off before he had the chance to ask her any more questions she might answer more fully than she should. 

 

4.

 

As the TARDIS hurtled back through the vortex, the Doctor sat amongst a pile of books in the library and leafed again through her old diaries from back in the long scarf days, still hoping to find the odd moment when she might grab a word with herself in between the spells of impending doom. Deciphering his handwriting was nigh-on impossible – at least that was something she’d got better at with time – and when she could read it, most of it was either irrelevant or made no sense. A lot of stuff about how to reconfigure the TARDIS food dispensers to make the perfect jelly baby. She didn’t remember spending half a decade doing that, but apparently she had. 

She’d been hoping for something from back in the days when the Time Lords liked to send her off to do their dirty work for them. She’d scanned the pages, looking for mention of a time ring or even Skaro, because that was the one she really remembered. Typical High Council. Want rid of the Daleks, too cowardly to do it themselves, so they send her. That way if it all goes pear shaped, they can wash their hands of the whole thing, which was what they did, despite the fact that little escapade, according to some anyway, was what triggered the whole Time War in the first place. Much though she hated the Daleks, she couldn’t really blame them for being annoyed. Skipping back in time to try and prevent your whole species being created in the first place was a bit of a dirty trick. 

There was one passage that made her pause for a bit though. She was eating her way through a bag of jelly babies from the food processor – if you followed the diary’s instructions to the letter, they really did come out perfect, it was half a decade well spent – when she spotted a word that looked like ‘Karn’, and so paused to try and unravel some of the spidery writing and see what she’d been on about. She remembered the trip right away, of course, as soon as she read the bit about crashed spaceships. That had been the Time Lords’ doing as well, sending her off to deal with Morbius, or what was left of him. Whole armadas of time ships and weapons that could turn the fabric of the universe inside out and none of them willing to get out of their comfy chairs in the Capitol to use them. 

One line towards the end though made her stop and she re-read the words a few times to be sure she was picking out the right meaning. 

Sarah asked again why I was ‘being moody’, her words, not mine, and whether it was because I wished I’d been able to save Morbius. ‘After all,’ she said, ‘don’t you miss your own people sometimes? Don’t you ever want to go home, meet up with friends, talk about old times?’ How to explain? Of course there are times I’d like to go back, but the Gallifrey I’d like to spend time on doesn’t exist. It never did. It’s a case of love the planet, detest the people. Perhaps detest is too strong a word. I’ve never felt hatred for the Time Lords, only a sense of innate disappointment. Even as a child, I often wondered how a people so privileged and wise could, at the same time, be some of the most stubborn, misguided imbeciles in the cosmos. So would I like to return to Gallifrey? Perhaps, but I’d only find myself bored, or irritated, once again. Sometimes I feel I was born in the wrong place and time. Everyone else at the Academy took to the way of life with so much ease and there was me, sleeping in a barn when I went home to the Outlands for the holidays – frightened there was something living under my bed, for goodness sake, even in my second year at school! Always swimming against the current that pushed everybody else so happily along. 

So I told Sarah no, I wasn’t upset that I couldn’t save Morbius. After all, it had been tried before. Some people just don’t want to be saved. I told her I was simply contemplating things too monumental for a human brain to comprehend. She said something I didn’t quite catch, but which didn’t sound too complimentary, then went away, and I was left to go back to thinking about what really worried me on Karn. Not the Time Lords and their endless meddling in my affairs, though that was something I would really have to put a stop to. Not Morbius and his inability to grasp the collapse of his nefarious plans. I’ve seen far too many would-be dictators unable to accept that the fight was over to be troubled by that. No. What my mind keeps returning to was that moment during our battle of minds. Of course, Morbius may well have been trying to unnerve me, get the upper hand, so to speak, but somehow I think not. I don’t know how I know, but I am certain that the things I saw projected on that screen were real, that they did come from my brain, and yet I barely recognised a fraction of the faces there. It’s not possible for me to know my future, at least not to any great extent, which only leaves the past, which I should know very well because it’s my past. I was there. So who were those other faces?

There was nothing more. The next entry was some sort of half-cooked theory about how to capture the song of the elusive singing snail of Gravinar Six, and musings about what, if anything, a snail might have to sing about. The familiar thunk as the ship landed and the engines stopped interrupted any further thoughts she herself had on the matter, but the Doctor left the library mulling over the Karn entry and trying to remember for herself exactly what had been on those screens in Morbius’s lab. She remembered the incident, but not the details. It was too long ago and the battle itself had taken a toll on her brain, but her old self was right. Now she thought about it, there had been a lot of stuff flung up supposedly from her mind that she didn’t recognise. If only she could remember what it was, but try as she might, the images just wouldn’t come. Nothing for it then but to continue with the plan. 

 

5.

 

‘Go away, you’re scaring the fish.’

The Doctor had no idea how anyone could’ve seen her approaching when they were hidden beneath a massive, multicoloured beach umbrella, and she’d only just emerged from the line of trees above the riverbank. All she could make out of the figure who’d spoken was a pair of legs in yellow trousers, ankles crossed, feet in a pair of green boots with orange spats, and the end of a fishing rod dangling over the sluggish, brown water. 

‘This is Farrax Prime,’ she said. ‘There aren’t any native species of fish on this planet.’

‘Not the point,’ replied the golf umbrella. ‘One comes here for peace, contemplation, and above all, solitude.’

‘Yeah, well, with your charm I imagine it’s difficult to keep the hordes of admirers away, but if I could just get a minute of your time.’

With a deep sigh, the other Doctor finally laid his fishing rod down amongst the weeds by the water’s edge and closed the umbrella. He was squeezed into a folding fabric chair, and made no effort to get out of it and meet her. Instead he threw a scowl over his shoulder. She could feel him judging every atom of her being and not being all that impressed by what he saw.

‘Who are you?’ he asked. ‘What do you want? And how did you get here? This planet’s uninhabited. There aren’t any spacefaring races in this sector. That’s why I like it.’

‘Yeah,’ said the Doctor. ‘Came by TARDIS.’

‘Very funny.’

She waited. He wasn’t letting any kind of contact through the barriers he’d set up around his mind, but she felt a slight prod as he had a quick look at her, telepathically speaking. Then he twisted round to look at her properly. His expression had not gained any warmth. If anything, he looked even more annoyed.

‘Oh no,’ he said.

‘Yeah, sorry.’

‘Not again. Look, I really am fed up always having to get myself out of trouble. Just for once it would be nice if I could handle my own mess for a change.’

This was not quite where the Doctor had wanted to end up. She’d been aiming for her seventh incarnation, the one after this, but just about got homed in on his location when something bounced the TARDIS co-ordinates. She’d been in the library at the time so hadn’t seen what, exactly, had shoved them off course and into the path of Mr Personality instead, but she suspected that her other self had set up some kind of defence of his own to keep people away from whatever he was up to. That was why she’d been after Seven. He was the sneaky one. If anyone knew what was going on, it would be him. But, in the meantime, this would have to do.

‘I’m not asking for all that much,’ she said. ‘Just to pick your brain for a bit.’

And so she told the story again. It was sounding more and more fantastic with every retelling. After a few words, he went back to fiddling with the fishing rod and she thought perhaps he’d stopped listening, but she carried on anyway.

‘So, that’s it. Left the fam in Sheffield and went off to do a bit of soul searching, only in person rather than, you know, internal.’

He pulled a face. ‘Fam?’

‘My friends. So what do you think? There might be something to it?’

‘I find it easier to believe that there’s a whole section of my life that’s been kept from me for whatever reason than that I shall ever come to employ the word ‘fam’ on anything like a regular basis.’

‘Never mind the vocabulary, what about Gallifrey? Last time I spoke to you, you were just about to go there, meet up with the others, find Rassilon’s tomb. Was there anything there that felt weird?’

He gave a short, dry laugh. ‘Other than the array of creatures trying to kill me, you mean? No, not that I recall.’

‘And nothing since?’

He glanced down at his hands, which were still keeping the rod steady over the empty, fishless river, and she saw his expression soften slightly, though his brow was still furrowed. He wasn’t annoyed now, she reasoned, but thinking. In the silence, she tried to work out where they were, relative to his timeline. She’d passed his TARDIS a few feet up the bank, just behind the trees, and she hadn’t noticed anyone else about. No Peri, no Mel. So was he on his own then? If so…

‘Anything in the Matrix, maybe?’ she tried, hoping if she was wrong and that hadn’t happened yet, she wouldn’t be giving too much away. He didn’t react at all, which made her think she was right and that he’d been on trial under the Time Lords only a short while ago. 

‘The Time Lords have never been averse to manipulating entire worlds, entire species, for their own aims,’ he said. ‘Why should it be so unthinkable that they’d do the same with one of their own people? The difficulty is, if it has been erased, you’ll have your work cut out for you trying to find anything. They do like to cover their tracks.’

‘I know.’ The Doctor sighed and felt like she’d exhaled every breath she’d ever taken, like her body had deflated, and she crouched beside him on the riverbank, watching the weary, languorous movements on the water’s surface. For a long while, they sat in silence, while she debated what to do next, or whether this had all been a silly idea in the first place. He was right. Poking around at old memories probably wasn’t going to bring any clarity, only more, confusing bits of random information that didn’t add up. 

‘There might be a way,’ the other Doctor began tentatively.

The Doctor sat up, but didn’t dare speak and break his chain of thought or annoy him again and make him change his mind while he was being helpful.

The Sixth Doctor put down his rod and clasped his hands in his lap, looking deeply troubled as he turned to her.

‘Though it’s not something I would recommend. It could be extremely dangerous. If not fatal.’

She was about to reply with something flippant, ‘Danger’s my middle name – well actually it’s Alonzo but…’ and stopped herself. It wasn’t the time. She could tell from his face, his body language, and the dark tone that had crept into his voice that this wasn’t something he took lightly.

‘What?’ she prompted.

He hesitated, and she could see him debating whether he’d said too much, but then he sighed again. 

‘You might try and find the Valeyard.’

‘You… what? Seriously?’

Whatever she’d been expecting, that had not been it.

‘Like, as in, the actual Valeyard. Evil incarnate. Hates us with a passion and wants us dead? Tried to have you killed so he could steal the rest of your regenerations? That Valeyard?’

‘No, there’s one who works in the lower law chambers and specialises in Intergalactic Tort… Of course that Valeyard. The Valeyard. Like I said, not the wisest idea, but I can’t think where else you might find answers. He claimed to be from my future, our future. I can’t say as I understand exactly what he is or where he came from but he seemed to have knowledge of my… of our lives that went a lot deeper than my own. And he spent a lot of time dabbling about in the Matrix. If anyone knows what the High Council were up to, it’s him.’

‘Where is he?’

‘No idea,’ said the Sixth Doctor, with a shrug. ‘Last I saw of him, he was in the Matrix on Zenobia Station, just before the power overloaded. Though I’d be very surprised if he was destroyed. I’ve heard rumours since then, but nothing substantial. I’m sure if you tried hard enough, you’d be able to find him. After all, you have the perfect bait to reel him in.’

As he spoke, the line suddenly tensed, dragging the rod through the mud and weeds where he’d left it propped up. The Sixth Doctor darted forward and grabbed it before it disappeared into the water, then spun the reel, pulling hard against the straining wire. 

‘There’s no fish here,’ said the Doctor, shaking her head.

‘Oh ye of little faith.’

He gave one last tug on the rod and the line sprang up out of the water, sending up a shower of icy spray. Dangling on the hook was a small, brown, and rather battered leather boot, complete with laces. The Doctor couldn’t help but laugh. 

‘Nice one,’ she said. ‘Have that with chips later.’

‘If that’s all you wanted…?’ sighed the Sixth Doctor. 

‘Yeah, right, I’ll be off then.’ 

Out the corner of her eye she saw him glance at her as she walked away, and wondered if he was going to call after her with something more, some new information he’d just thought of. He prized the boot from its hook and tossed it back into the river, where it landed with a plop.

‘Good to see my future is in safe hands,’ he said. ‘Even if our fashion sense has somewhat deteriorated over the centuries.’

She glanced down automatically at her grey coat and blue trousers, which she still liked, thank you very much.

‘Oi,’ she called back. ‘You can talk. Could tune your telly off that coat!’

He smiled, but kept his gaze fixed on the river, having recast his line.

‘If you do go looking for him,’ he said, ‘be careful. Don’t underestimate him.’

She didn’t have to ask who ‘he’ was, and muttered, ‘Right. Thanks,’ as she made her way back to her own TARDIS.

The Valeyard, she thought. Yeah, bad idea. Really, really bad idea. Worse idea than chasing after her other selves and risking time and space. Besides which, how did you find one person in a whole universe when they could be anywhere and anywhen? Telepathic circuits? Risky. All right, it might take her to the Valeyard but it could just as easily bring him to her and she’d rather be a bit more prepared before she faced that particular monster from her past again. No, she thought, new plan.

‘All right,’ she said to the TARDIS. ‘You know me. You’ve known me almost as long as I’ve known me. Maybe even longer if all this stuff is true. So you decide.’ 

She plunged her hand into the gelatinous material that interfaced with the ship’s telepathic circuits and felt the warmth of the connection flowing through her. It was always there, like a little buzz at the back of her brain, like a bulb just starting to warm up, but now the light flared and they were together, her and the ship. Again she felt the slight reluctance on the TARDIS’s part, a tiny bit of resentment or wariness perhaps, but it was swamped by the feeling of pilot and living ship acting in concert.

‘Finding me one of them who’ll help,’ she said and thought at the same time.

With very little hesitation, the engines groaned and started up.

 

6.

 

The Doctor opened the TARDIS door with trepidation, having deliberately ignored the monitors when they landed so the destination would be a surprise. A test of memory, she thought. See if I can figure out where and who I am from the surroundings. 

It didn’t take long. The TARDIS sat at the juncture of two long corridors, panelled in vermillion-stained wood until halfway then painted white to the ceiling, with polished linoleum floors. Pinboards on the wall directly opposite the TARDIS door displayed advertisements with pull off tabs for private tutoring and flat shares, or neatly printed notices of essay competitions, altered dates for seminars and lectures, and lists of names sorted into tutorial groups. The smell of wood polish, old paper and cheap deodorant wafted around on a faint draught blowing around the place, while light streamed in from tall windows evenly spaced along the hallway, looking out, so far as the Doctor could see from the TARDIS, onto a courtyard with a green lawn. She knew exactly where she was. Not perhaps where she’d have chosen, but it did confirm her theory about the TARDIS’s personal preferences when it came to her previous personas. 

She left the ship and headed through more identical corridors, past closed doors with brass nameplates, some with just bits of A4 paper taped to them with lists of students due there for a class. The door the Doctor was looking for had nothing on it but its room number, and an empty frame for a nameplate that had never been added. The door was ajar, and she stood for a moment, listening for signs of movement inside. She heard nothing, so pushed the door open and slipped through. 

She had once loved this office. She remembered always wanting a room like this, even back at the Academy, a sort of musty, academic place full of old books and old furniture, all dark wood and dusty sunlight. Her other self’s TARDIS sat in the far corner, the edge of a throw rug poking out beneath it, rumpled up where the ship had landed and disturbed it. So he was here then, she thought. Not off on a jaunt somewhere. That was promising. There were other doors leading off the main office and she remembered there were several little annexes where she used to hide herself away to avoid the students. Still, she listened for a long while and heard nothing. 

Maybe he was in the lecture hall, she concluded, and decided to wait a while and see what happened. She wandered over to the large, cluttered desk and sank into the chair. It seemed bigger now, but then that was probably because she was smaller. She remembered that she liked to sit with her feet up on the blotter, but when she tried now, it was too uncomfortable. You needed longer legs for that. Or a higher chair. 

There was still the little pot, though, with its collection of old sonic screwdrivers, most of which no longer worked but were there with the promise of one day being repaired, and next to that, the collection of photos that she’d hoped, back then, would make the place seem a little more human, should anyone come in, like she was doing now, and have a nose around. River Song, she thought, folding her arms and leaning forward to consider the woman’s faint smile in the photograph. The Doctor wondered where she was at that precise point in the timeline, and tried to imagine what it would be like to meet her now. 

River hadn’t recognised her in her last regeneration, and the Doctor didn’t recall River’s little collection of photos having any pictures of her included. Or any other, unknown faces either, for that matter. No Ruth Clayton or anyone else. It would’ve been nice to talk to River about all this, though. She’d understand what it was like not knowing who or what you are, finding out your whole life has been manipulated, but that wasn’t going to happen.

Next to River, a black and white photograph of the Doctor’s granddaughter gave almost the same half-smile, faintly knowing and mischievous. She’d have to go see Susan and David someday as well. She’d promised she’d come back and it’d been ages. More than ages. The Doctor sighed and rested her chin on her arms. Maybe when this was all over. Whatever ‘this’ was.

She’d been so wrapped up in thinking that she’d stopped listening to the sounds around the room, and so when a voice broke the silence she sat bolt upright in the chair.

‘I wouldn’t, if I were you,’ said the round-faced, completely bald little man in a maroon waistcoat and white shirt who stood, cup of tea in hand, at the corner of the desk. He set the cup and saucer down beside the pot of screwdrivers and gave her a warning look. ‘He doesn’t like anyone else sitting in his chair.’

‘I’m not anyone else, Nardole,’ said the Doctor. ‘Is he here?’

Nardole straightened, frowning at her. Trying to figure her out, the Doctor thought. She saw him glance over at one of the annex doors, so that told her where her former self was hiding. As she followed Nardole’s gaze, she spotted a slim figure with a shock of wild grey hair ducking out of sight behind the door jamb, having obviously sneaked a look at his visitor.

‘Got another one of these?’ the Doctor asked, nodding towards the cup. The steam rising from it and the smell of the hot tea made her crave a decent brew. It’d been ages since she’d had good tea. Maybe the scarfy Doctor had some tips for messing with the food dispensers to get a decent Lapsang Puchong as well as jelly babies. She’d have to check next time she had a minute.

Nardole sighed, but there was a hint of disgust there and he wandered off. The Doctor figured she probably wasn’t going to get tea. Maybe she should just drink the one on the desk. But then technically, had she already drunk that same cup? Were atoms from it still insider her even now, converted into some other protein in an organ or something, and so would taking that cup and drinking it again, the very same atoms, start the chain reaction that brought about the end of the universe?

‘Overthinking it,’ she muttered to herself, but she left the cup on the desk.

After a few moments when there was no sign of anyone coming to meet her, she leaned back in the chair and looked towards the doorway where she’d caught a glimpse of the other Doctor a moment before.

‘Your tea’s getting cold,’ she called out.

He emerged slowly from the annex, never taking his eyes off her as he approached the desk. It was the first time she’d seen that body from the outside, and that was always an odd sensation. There was always a moment of disconnect, when her brain thought it was looking in a mirror or something, just for a second before her mind worked out what was actually going on and calmed down. It felt like vertigo, or that sudden lurch that sometimes comes on the brink of sleep, where the body feels like it’s falling and wakes itself up in its panic. 

He was dressed in a finely tailored black velvet coat with a white shirt and waistcoat beneath. The slightly more formal outfit she used to favour now and then when it didn’t feel like a day for checked trousers and a hoodie. The hair – it had got long, hadn’t it? But then finding a decent barber was a struggle when you’re chasing monsters around the galaxy or stuck in a prison for four billion years or guarding a vault beneath a university in the West Country. It was nice, though, she thought. It softened her, him, a little compared to the short and severe style she’d had back when she first regenerated.  

She couldn’t quite make out what he was thinking though, either from the faint touch of his mind against hers or from the expression in those intense grey eyes. And those eyebrows. Formidable things, now she was looking at them as an outsider. Like a couple of storm clouds gathering to start the thunder. 

‘You’re in my chair,’ he said at last, with a slight gesture towards the seat. The Doctor considered staying where she was, since, to all intents and purposes, it was also her chair, but she decided not to press the point and went around to the less comfortable, high-backed wooden seat on the opposite side of the desk. The other Doctor stayed where he was for a moment, still sizing her up, then slipped into his precious chair. He glanced at the cup of tea as if he couldn’t remember what it was, then picked it up and sipped a little. It was the first time he’d lowered his gaze and the Doctor felt like she’d been pinned by some energy beam until that moment and felt her muscles relax without his scrutiny. 

‘Which are you?’ he asked. ‘Obviously further down the line, but…’

‘Not that far,’ she replied. ‘Better start learning girl’s sizes. It’s like another universe. No inches or collar sizes or anything like that. It’s all numbers that mean nothing and no two pieces of clothes with the same number’ll be the same size. It’s a nightmare. Oh, and I learned this in a shop where I got these clothes but it’ll be handy for you to know. The woman in the shop told me I had to get properly measured, otherwise my back would hurt. Hadn’t a clue what she was on about to begin with, but let her do her thing. She wasn’t half right. Oh, and the less fabric there is in girl’s clothes, the more expensive it is, generally speaking. It’s weird.’

She’d been rambling, a little unnerved by his calm, measured tone and quiet Scottish accent. It really was like talking to a teacher, like he was assessing her on what she said and how she said it. So she stopped herself from saying any more and waited, watching his reaction as he sipped his tea and studied her. There was something in his expression that made her feel like she’d a bottomless pit inside her, like a huge escarpment diving down to a black, churning but unseen ocean. Sadness, that was what it was. It hit her with another of those lurching, falling sensations. And he looked tired. She hadn’t thought to look at the date on the desk calendar, but she didn’t think it would be long before the man across from her would look in the mirror and see this new face staring back at him.

‘Somehow I don’t think you came here to give me fashion tips,’ he said with a faint smile. 

‘No. I came for your advice actually. I…’

Someone knocked briskly on the door and came in without waiting for an answer. A young man in a sagging, khaki-coloured coat and faded t-shirt leaned into the room, still clinging to the door handle.

‘Sorry, sir,’ he said, ‘can I just ask a quick question?’

‘So long as it is a quick question,’ said the other Doctor. ‘I don’t really have the time right now for any other sort.’

‘Right,’ said the student. ‘I just wondered… that stuff you said in the lecture today about the snails, how the spiral of the shell was meant to amplify the song, even though only other snails can hear it.’

‘Or people with very sensitive ears,’ said the Doctor. ‘Virtuoso musicians, people who complain regularly to the council about music, that sort of thing. The point was that not everything in nature is made to be functional. Some things are just there to add to the beauty or the wonder of the universe, because it would be a boring place without it.’

‘Yeah. Just… first off, did you say those snails, the singing ones, were from another planet?’

‘Well they haven’t been found on this planet yet, so they must be.’

‘So… it’s a theoretical snail. Like an allegory?’

‘If you want to think of it like that.’

The student nodded. ‘Right. And will that be in the exam?’

‘No. I don’t think so,’ said the other Doctor. ‘That’ll probably stick to the course outline. Probably best to go through the reading list the course co-ordinator issued and ignore most of what I’ve said in lectures. I’m more a sort of amplifier for your brains. It’s my job to get you out of the way of sleeping inside your own heads and get you to actually think. Until your brains are singing with ideas.’

The student smiled and nodded. ‘Like the snail. I get it.’

‘I don’t know, probably. I think I’m making most of this up as I go along. But certainly I doubt if there’ll be any questions on xenobiology in the exam, no.’

‘Right. Thanks, sir.’

The student withdrew and closed the door behind him, cutting out the noise of the bustle that had filled the corridor in the few minutes since the Doctor had come into the office. At once the room was silent again, apart from the faint hum from the TARDIS behind her. 

‘You were saying?’ the other Doctor prompted.

The Doctor had been thinking about the snails and had to drag her mind back on track again. 

‘I came to run something past you. Maybe you can see it in a different light, think of something I haven’t thought of yet, although then, if you think of it, I will’ve thought of it, but I can’t have until you think of it now.’

‘Run away then,’ he said, and sat back in his chair with his fingertips pressed together. He reminded her now a little too much of a psychiatrist settling in to listen to his patient’s woes. 

She told him about Ruth and Gat and the ultra-secret sect they both allegedly worked for, and about the visions she’d remembered after reading her old diaries, back when she fought Morbius, and he sat and listened without giving anything away in his expression. She remembered being a lot more brusque and slightly scary during this incarnation but the version of herself she saw now was gentle, wise. Kind, that was it. The word she’d tried to live by back in those days. Funny how that had happened. Somehow, in the midst of all the death and destruction, all the temper and the irritableness and scary eyebrows had given way to kindness. The clouds parting after the rain was gone to let the sun come through.

‘Sounds like the Celestial Intervention Agency,’ he said once she’d finished and given a long enough pause for him to know she’d said all she could.

‘I know,’ said the Doctor, ‘but the thing is, I… we worked for the CIA. We’ve done loads of stuff for them, but I remember all of that. And it was always as me, as myself, not some random, other version of me I’ve never seen before.’

‘The idea that the Time Lords could have some hidden agenda even the upper echelons don’t know about doesn’t surprise me,’ he said. ‘Our people live too long, that’s the trouble. After the first few centuries, when you’ve done everything, seen everything Gallifrey has to offer and there’s nothing left, because you adhere to the ideology of non-interference, then the only thing left is to think of yourself, of trying to make your existence more meaningful. The Time Lords tend to do that by squirrelling away plots and intrigues so they can gain more and more power. Out-thinking their rivals, out-plotting their friends and their enemies. The Time War need never have started, let alone lasted as long as it did and caused the devastation it did, if only there’d been a cohesive decision taken on the strategy to use. But when the Daleks emerged into the universe, the Time Lords saw a threat to their power base and started scheming, not just against the Daleks but against each other, so that everyone could say they came up with a better plan than the next Time Lord. Not one of them thought to try and find a peaceful resolution to the Thal-Kaled war before the Daleks were created, before Davros felt they were necessary. No one thought to try and show them there was another way besides killing each other.’

‘So what do I do?’ asked the Doctor. ‘How do I find out what’s happened to me? How do I get them to unravel themselves enough to tell the truth?’

He shook his head, fingers pressed against his lips. ‘You could go to Gallifrey, demand answers, invoke all manner of laws and regulations but I doubt it would get you anywhere. We’ve been Lord President. We’ve been inside the Matrix. And yet we know nothing about this. There’s never been a hint of this, which means in all likelihood, whatever’s going on is going on behind the High Council’s back. Someone with the real power is working in the shadows.’

The Doctor swallowed, as an image flashed across her mind of the citadel, broken and burning, worse than it had been even at the height of the Time War, because even then there had still been life. Her eyes warmed with the sting that threatened tears, but she inhaled deeply and pushed the sadness back.

‘I can’t go to Gallifrey,’ she said. She wanted to say more but knew she couldn’t. ‘And like you say, it’d be a waste of time anyway, so what do I do? There has to be someone out there who knows about this, or some trace of it left over somewhere. I have this feeling that it’s there, in front of me, but I just can’t see it yet.’

The other Doctor hesitated and avoided eye contact for a moment. At first the Doctor thought he’d seen her on the verge of crying and was being discreet, but then she realised he was mulling something over. Like their colourfully-dressed counterpart on Farrax, he was debating whether to voice his opinion or not.

‘There might be a way, but it’s not something I’d recommend.’

She waited. He wavered a little more, then seemed to come to a decision.

‘You could try to find the Valeyard,’ he said at length.

‘You’re the second person to say that. Well, not really. Same person but second time it’s been said.’

‘Just an idea. I have no idea where he is or how to find him, but who knows what he got up to on Gallifrey before the trial, how deep he managed to get into the Matrix.’

‘Pretty deep, I always thought,’ said the Doctor.

‘Exactly. It’s possible he found something out. Back then, he wanted regenerations, any that were remaining. At the time I didn’t think much of it. I was, so I thought, halfway through my life. Wouldn’t he be better going after an earlier version of me so he could have more time, if that’s what he wanted? But here I am, when by all rights my predecessor should’ve been the last Doctor. Maybe the Valeyard knew something. Or maybe I’m reading too much into this. But he had knowledge of our past and future. He said as much. I’d offer to go with you but I have… responsibilities.’

‘The vault,’ said the Doctor.

He nodded. ‘Among other things. That’s the problem when you let yourself get attached to people. You can’t make plans alone any more. You can’t just go off and die heroically without affecting them. It’s really quite inconvenient.’

‘I know. My lot’s the same.’

‘Lot?’

‘Three of ‘em. My fam.’

One of the intimidating eyebrows raised and she saw him mouth the word ‘fam’ with a slight sneer.

‘Of course,’ he went on, ‘the other option might be to go back to source. To the very beginning. The original, or what we’ve always thought of as ‘the original’.’

‘Right,’ said the Doctor, dragging out the syllable. ‘Tell you what, run that Valeyard idea past me again. It’s not looking so bad now in comparison.’

The other Doctor smiled. ‘We probably remember the old fellow worse than he really is. And at least you know where to find him.’

‘Any help he gives you though, you don’t half pay for it.’

‘Oh, you’ll be insulted, and probably threatened, but he’s the one who started it all. He’s the one who found a TARDIS and ran away. Whatever’s going on, it had to affect him.’

‘Yeah,’ said the Doctor. ‘I can just tell he’s gonna love me. I’m just the sort of person he really likes. He’ll be dead pleased to see how he turns out.’ 

She remembered meeting up with the old man only recently. In the not too distant future for this moment in time, she thought, looking at the other Doctor across from her, and how taken aback she’d been by her own arrogance and naivety almost. She hadn’t… or rather he hadn’t really experienced the universe yet, and so was still wrapped up in his own little bubble of prejudice and fear. It was everything that had happened since that made her who she was, but with him, it was all still potential, wrapped up in a frail-looking, white-haired old gent with an aloof manner and a little too much Time Lord haughtiness still be to washed away by all the friendships and hopes and miseries that were out there waiting for him.

‘You’ll be fine,’ said the other Doctor. ‘And whatever you choose to do, good luck.’

They both stood, a mutual understanding between them that the meeting was over, and the other Doctor offered his hand. The Doctor took it, then dashed to the other side of the desk and drew him into a hug instead. She didn’t really know why she did it. It just felt like the right thing to do.

‘You’ll be fine too,’ she said into his ear. ‘I promise you.’

On another unexpected impulse, she kissed him lightly on the cheek before letting him go, almost went to walk into his TARDIS before she remembered herself, then headed for the door, turning to give a last wave before she stepped into the stream of students in the corridor outside.

 

 

7.

 

The Doctor left her TARDIS in an inconspicuous alleyway off the Kingsland Road in Shoreditch, where hopefully its chameleon circuit would, for once, do its job and make anyone passing by think it was an ordinary police box. For safety’s sake, though, she took out the ‘out of order’ sign she had kept in the console room for years and pinned it to the door before heading off. 

A thick fog drifted over the streets and turned the nearly silent trolleybuses into leviathans, appearing out of the gloom, headlights blazing. Figures shambled past, heads low, collars upturned. Everything was dun and grey here, the Doctor thought. Even the red buses were robbed of their vibrance by the sickly orange glow of the sodium street lights and the swirls of fog. 

Spatters of voices flew out of windows and doorways as the Doctor followed the Kingsland Road southwards, then all went quiet as she came into the shadow of Shoreditch Church, a stout block of grimy red bricks topped by a white tower meant to look like Christopher Wren’s St Mary Le Bow, though it had been George Dance the Elder who designed it after the previous tower collapsed. The Doctor smiled as she remembered George’s face when the newly restored church opened its doors for its first service. He’d been so chuffed. His first church, built to his own design, not just carrying out Wren’s orders like he’d done when he worked at St Paul’s. It hadn’t even bothered him too much that people said the church was ugly, that Hawksmoor’s stuff was better. 

Now though, striking up into the fog, the tower looked more like a knife blade and the windows in the main body of the church seemed to watch her, to the point where she almost expected them to blink like a row of giant eyes as she passed. She crossed the street and put the church behind her, but could still feel it there, sneering at her.

She was being ridiculous, she told herself. She was just nervous about where she was going. Wasn’t the most salubrious area of London, at least not in 1963, and since she’d landed early in the year, around February if she’d got the co-ordinates right, the nights were long and cold and miserable, which made the streets and the tiny, cobbled lanes darting off the streets, look dark and foreboding. 

Almost directly opposite the church, Rivington Street stretched off to the west and the Doctor passed along it for a way. Years later, this would be an area for art, Banksy’s patch, but at that moment it was all just dirty brick walls, litter and the occasional mangy looking stray cat. She followed the twists and turns of the increasingly narrow streets, past the place where, four hundred years or so earlier, the Theatre had once stood. Shakespeare’s patch. He’d moved down to Southwark in 1599, taking the Theatre with him to use the materials for the newer, fancier Globe, by the time the Doctor met him. Carrionites, that had put paid to what was supposed to be a fun day out for her friend Martha. 

There was nothing around now to remember the old theatre crowd except a few street names, and back in the church, the graves of Richard Burbage and other actors who’d made the bard’s characters come to life, right on this spot. All that history round about and the Doctor realised that, when she’d first come to London all those lifetimes ago, she’d not cared about any of it.

The TARDIS, nicked, of course, so that she could get off Gallifrey without being noticed as much as if she’d taken a newer model, had never been in particularly good condition to begin with and the trip to Earth took its toll on her, so that once they’d landed in London, the Doctor and Susan were pretty much stranded. She hadn’t cared about theatres or Shakespeare or the architecture or any of that. She’d barely come out of the junkyard where she’d stored the TARDIS and set up home like a hermit crab. 

She saw it now, just up ahead, a square of darkness between two buildings across the street. The entrance to Totter’s Lane. The streetlights there had hardly ever worked. Once, an attempt to repair the TARDIS’s dematerialisation circuits had results in an energy surge that blew every bulb. They’d eventually been fixed, only to fail again a few days later. Perhaps the TARDIS had done something to the wiring under the cobbles. They were out again now as the Doctor headed into the dank little alley, and with the fog, it was impossible to see more than a few feet ahead of her. She wished now she’d brought a torch, if only to see what she might be stepping in. Sometimes if the winters were particularly bad, the corpses of poor, starved and frozen animals were left in the snow to rot. At least it wasn’t snowing now, the Doctor thought, but she still wished she could see where she was putting her feet.

There were no lighted windows in sight, just high brick walls that told the world no visitors were wanted or needed, then at the very end, a wooden fence, whose white-painted lettering could just be seen through the dark, thanks to an old miner’s lamp hung on a hook on one of the boards. Its oil-fuelled flame only gave off a weak globe of light but it was enough to read the sign. I.M. Foreman. 76 Totter’s Lane.

The gate wasn’t locked, but the Doctor only pushed it a little way at first, just testing it, hoping its hinges wouldn’t creak too loudly and at the same time, listening for any voices on the other side in the junkyard. There were none, and the gate gave only a slight moan as she moved it a little further, until there was just enough space to squeeze through. The yard itself was unlit, but a little light from the street it backed onto spilled over the walls and so she could make out the dark islands of rubbish piled around the place and the narrow paths through them, even if she couldn’t see what exactly the islands were made up of. 

In a lonely corner, she found a battered old police box. The Doctor ran her hand over the flaking paint on the door and felt the vibration through the outer shell. It was probably still a bit confused after its flight from Gallifrey, although it had, back when it had been inside the body of a human, confessed that it had had a hand in her choice of capsule when she’d first fled her home planet. The Doctor didn’t know how true that was, but it was a nice thought, that she’d been chosen by the ship just as much as she’d picked out this old Type 40 for her own.

So, she thought, what should she do? Knock and see if he was in? She couldn’t remember if Susan would’ve started school yet, and so might be floating around somewhere, or if at this point, her former self was still trying to keep them both hidden away in this ratty little corner of London. She remembered being desperate to get away in the beginning. She’d spent hours trying to repair the TARDIS so she could get back into the vortex and keep another few steps ahead of any Time Lords that might be after her. So they’d probably be in there. Just knock, say hello, try to convince the old fellow that she was, in fact, him, and ask for help. Easy. She raised her hand, paused, closed her eyes, took a deep breath, then rapped on the door.

There was no reply. No one called out. The door didn’t open. She tried it but it was locked. She did consider opening it with her own key, but then she’d have no idea what she was walking into, and the old fellow was quite handy with the cane he sometimes carried. 

Somewhere in the distance, a whistle blew. Probably a copper calling for backup. It cut through the night like the cry of a banshee, then everything went quiet again. There were no voices here, no growl of traffic, just the dark and the faint hum of the TARDIS. 

‘Direct approach,’ she said in a whisper. ‘Always best.’

She rapped again on the TARDIS door and this time leazned in close and shouted at the partially open window. 

‘Doctor? I’m pretty sure you’re in there and I really, really need to talk to you. This might sound funny, but I’m you, or you’re going to be me, if you see what I mean, and I’ve got some stuff happening right now that I think you can help me with. So will you let me in or will I just come in myself? ‘Cause I’ve got my own key. Same Doctor, same TARDIS and all that. What do you say? Doctor?’

A long silence passed before she heard a slight thud behind the door and then a shuffle, someone moving around inside.

‘Step back from the door,’ ordered a crisp, aristocratic voice, drifting down through the open window. 

The Doctor did as she was told and folded her arms as the door opened and the other Doctor, wrapped in his wool cape and wearing his astrakhan cap as if he’d either just been out or was on his way somewhere, glared at her. He kept his hand on the door, holding it like a riot shield between them, and he looked her up and down with obvious distaste and suspicion.

‘What is it you want?’ he asked. ‘What’s all this nonsense? Same Doctor, same TARDIS. What’s the meaning of it? Hm?’

‘What do you mean, what’s the meaning of it?’ replied the Doctor. She held out her arms in a gesture she hoped would convey she was harmless. ‘I’m you, twelve or so regenerations down the line. One day you’ll wake up and this’ll be the face you’ll see.’

‘Preposterous. Even if I were to believe that at some point in the future I shall feel the need to experience the opposite gender, I hardly think it’s likely that I should dress myself like that.’

‘Like what?’ The Doctor looked down at her clothes and frowned, offended.

‘Like some… what’s the term they use nowadays? A Mod?’ He pronounced the word as if it tasted bad.

‘What’s wrong with being a bit Mod. So you’ll loosen up a little bit over the years. Look, make contact with me if you want to check but I’m telling you, I’m you, and believe me, I remember what I was like when I was you, so I would not be here if it wasn’t an emergency and I didn’t absolutely need your help. So can I come in?’

He sniffed, then she felt the prod as he tested her mind, then although his sneer deepened, he stepped back a little way from the door.

‘Very well. If you must.’

He turned, leaving the door open for her, and she followed him into the console room. She’d been in here only recently, just before she’d regenerated, but it had been a little further down the timeline and a little older then. Stepping in now, the faintly metallic smell and the buzz of the instruments, the round things on the walls, the pale green console and its clunky buttons, it sent her whirling back into her memories for a moment and she just stood, taking it all in. She only noticed Susan sitting in a chair by the far wall after she’d been gazing about the place for a while. She looked less wary of this new intruder than her grandfather and watched the Doctor with obvious interest. She had a book open on her lap, but the Doctor couldn’t see what it was.

‘Grandfather,’ she said, and to the Doctor’s surprise, the word sounded in pure Gallifreyan, not filtered down through any translation circuits. ‘Is she really you?’

‘English, Susan,’ said the other Doctor sharply, speaking in that language himself. 

‘I wish you’d turn the translator back on,’ Susan said, sotto voce, but the old man heard and strode over to her.

‘If the Time Lords find us, child, we may need to abandon this capsule and make a break for it. There might even come a time when we must destroy this ship, if only to protect our location and freedom. And what then? What will you do if you find yourself suddenly and permanently without a translation circuit, hm?’

‘But it’s so old fashioned, learning from books,’ said Susan, although she did switch to English. ‘It takes so much longer than a neural transfer.’

‘We don’t have the proper learning programmes for Earth languages, child. Do you think I had time to…to collect an entire library of educational material before we left?’

‘No, of course not, and I do see the point of it. But we’re all from Gallifrey here. What’s wrong with speaking our own language when we’re among our own people?’

‘The Time Lords are not our people, Susan,’ said the other Doctor. ‘Not any more. We are wanderers. We have no nation, no allegiances save to ourselves, and if we are to stay free, we must adapt and survive. And that means assimilating ourselves to this world, if only temporarily while I effect repairs. Is that clear?’

‘Yes, grandfather.’ Susan looked crestfallen, but in a beat, she controlled herself masterfully and looked up, smiling at the Doctor. ‘One good thing about English, it makes a jolly good acronym for the ship.’

‘Oh, yes, this… this new name, what was it?’ asked the old man.

‘TARDIS,’ said Susan. She turned again to address the Doctor. ‘See, in English, the name of the ship translates as time and relative dimensions in space capsule. Well, I dropped the capsule part because it doesn’t really work but the rest fits in quite neatly, I think. And it’s more personal than just calling her a ship or a capsule. I think she likes being called a TARDIS.’ The last comment was thrown towards her grandfather, who scoffed, and busied himself with something at the console, or pretended to.

‘I think she does,’ said the Doctor. ‘Definitely by my time, I hardly ever call her anything else.’ She nearly said, ‘except ‘Sexy’ one time’, but stopped herself. That was probably too long and weird a story to tell at that point.

‘Well,’ said the other Doctor. ‘What is it you want, young woman? If you truly are me, then your being here could alert the Time Lords to our location, so the quicker you ask your questions, then the quicker you can be on your way.’

He stood watching her, almost daring her to say something that would be worth his time and attention. Here goes, thought the Doctor.

‘A little while ago, in Gloucester, I came across a mass incursion by Judoon troops, looking for an alien fugitive. They sealed off the city, stamped all over the place, scanning everybody, shooting anyone who got in their way, until eventually they found her. Or found us, I should say.’

The old man straightened a little. ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘The woman they were looking for called herself Ruth Clayton, and when I did a bio-scan on her, she came up as human, but she’d used a chameleon arch.’

‘So, she was a Time Lord. An agent, sent here to… to spy on Earth? Or to find us, hm?’

‘I don’t know who she was, not really,’ said the Doctor. ‘That’s the reason I’m here. She told me she was the Doctor. Only, I’ve never seen her before.’

‘Then she must be a later regeneration,’ said Susan.

‘So I thought, but then she said she didn’t remember me either.’

‘That’s not possible,’ said the other Doctor.

‘I know. The only way neither of us would remember the other is if one of us had had part of the past erased. So either she comes after me, and she’s had her mind tampered with in some way, or else she’s from an earlier time, and it’s me who’s been messed around with, way back. Way, way back.’

He considered what she was saying and she saw his disgruntled expression change, like a shadow passed over his face and repositioned every muscle, into one of alarm.

‘Impossible,’ he said. ‘I am the first. The original…’

‘You might say, yes,’ interrupted the Doctor. ‘But are you though?’ She glanced over at Susan, who looked equally horrified. ‘How much of your lives can you be sure of? How do you know you haven’t lived a dozen times before now? There’s someone on Gallifrey working some kind of ultra, ultra-secret operation and they have the power to erase a lifetime’s worth of memories. Multiple lifetimes’ worth maybe. But they missed things. Things have burrowed their way to the surface. I’ve seen images of lives I don’t remember living. It’s in my brain, our brain, somewhere. I just need to know how to get it out.’

The other Doctor tugged at his lapels. ‘The whole idea is utterly preposterous. I know who I am, young woman. This person, this unknown Doctor, what’s her name?’

‘Ruth Clayton. Or at least that’s the name she used on Earth.’

‘How can you know she was telling the truth? Eh? When she said she didn’t remember you. It could all be a ruse, my child. A subterfuge to keep you from the truth. And that truth is that, far from being a previous incarnation of either of us, which is, as I said, completely impossible, she is a later version of ourselves. Somewhere, for some reason, she has decided to align herself with this, this secret society or whatever it is you called it.’

‘But she’s not,’ said the Doctor. ‘That society were after her. They sent another Time Lord to find her. It was that Time Lord who hired the Judoon in the first place. Ruth wanted to escape from them. That’s why she was hiding.’

‘Well, there you go,’ said the old man. He turned away and played with the console again, keeping his back to her. ‘Someone in that position is highly likely to use any means necessary to protect themselves. Including a distortion of the facts. That’s all there is to this, young woman. Nothing you need concern yourself about. Chances are you’ll never see this woman again until that moment, one would hope many, many years in your future, where you awaken after a long-awaited regeneration, refreshed and free of pain, and you will look into the mirror and see her face looking back at you.’ He gave a short chuckle and smiled, pleased with his explanation, and started brushing dust, real or imaginary, from the controls in front of him, with a handkerchief he drew out of his jacket pocket. ‘Yes, yes, that will be it.’

The Doctor watched him for a long while, aware that Susan was staring at her too, waiting to see what she’d say. The Doctor didn’t actually know what to say. His explanation did make sense. Ruth could’ve lied about not remembering being that particular version of the Doctor. Maybe something had happened to her that affected her memory and she lost a few regenerations. The Doctor had had a similar problem back around her eighth incarnation, just before the Time War. Serious amnesia. Didn’t even know who she was for a long time. It was possible Ruth had the same thing. It just didn’t feel right in her bones. She couldn’t explain it rationally and so knew she couldn’t argue with the old man, but she knew that what Ruth said was true. There was something in her tone, her body language, that made the Doctor believe her.

‘I remember my childhood, my dear,’ said the other Doctor, still with his back to her, but he’d paused in his dusting and just stood, one hand upon the console, as if he might fall down with it’s being there to support him. For a brief second, he looked older than when she’d first entered his TARDIS. Only for a second. The weariness, the pressure of the last few months, his flight from Gallifrey, the fear that had pushed him to run in the first place, it had all been battering against his skull for attention and he’d been pushing it aside, trying to ignore it. Only every now and then, when he was tired or when something particularly awful happened, all that misery could break through, just for a second. It would make the body sag and plant the idea inside a brain – just give up, there is no point in fighting. It was a feeling he’d better learn to deal with, thought the Doctor, because it was going to be a regular guest in his psyche.

‘I remember growing up,’ he carried on. ‘I remember my parents, my family, my home. I remember my friends from childhood. My first glimpse of the vortex as a novice in the Academy. That is my life. Yours too.’

‘I know, I remember it as well,’ said the Doctor. She wanted to go on, tell him, ‘but could it be that before I was ‘born’, as it were, I was someone else, and only regenerated from a dying adult into an infant? Was I a constant ouroboros, spinning round this cycle of death and rebirth for centuries, millennia, before all that stuff that you’re remembering began?’ But she kept it to herself. 

‘Whatever you find, my child,’ said the other Doctor, ‘I wish you luck, and I hope that the answers will explain away any aspect of this matter that disturbs you. You may even find something to your advantage when you learn the truth. I certainly hope so. But now, if you wouldn’t mind, we have been in the same time and place for far too long already. It may well have set alarm bells ringing in the halls of the Citadel. I can’t risk the Time Lords sending a recovery party to fetch us. Can you?’

‘It’s all right,’ said the Doctor. ‘I’m going. But thank you.’

‘Goodbye,’ Susan called, as the Doctor headed for the door. The Doctor turned, smiled and said a quiet ‘goodbye’ of her own, but she just wanted to get out of there and back to her own TARDIS. She felt like crying again and it was annoying, this time doubly so because she didn’t really know why she wanted to cry. The tears were just there, waiting in the wings, beading up on her eyelashes. She rubbed her eyes and strode off into the foggy London night.

 

 

 

8.

 

For the first time since she started this endeavour, the Doctor knew exactly what she wanted to do as she entered her own TARDIS’s console room and dashed to the controls. She knew the exact time and date without having to trawl through old journals and datebooks and weird little notes left in the TARDIS computer. She set the co-ordinates for Sheffield, the day after she last left it. She still didn’t know whether she could tell the others what was going on, but she needed them there.  She wanted people around her who liked her and wanted to be there, even if they just sat around and said nothing. She needed the atmosphere of their company. It would help to blast away the confusion and jumbled piles of facts and inferences buzzing around her head. 

She should’ve known that talking to three or four different versions of herself would give her three or four different theories too. They were all alike in some ways, her other selves. There were certain traces of a sort of core personality that she had always felt, no matter who she’d been. But those were buried beneath a mesh of, as the Valeyard himself had put it, ‘whims and idiosyncrasies’. They were the same but they were different, the paradox of Time Lord life. Obviously none of them were going to agree on anything.

She stood by the console, thinking over everything she’d heard so far, all the different ideas and possible solutions, when the TARDIS lurched. The whole room swung up at an angle and the Doctor clattered to the floor with a painful thud and slid down towards one of the crystal pillars. She just managed to get hold of it before she fell all the way down and hit the wall, but as she tried to claw her way back up to the console, the room righted itself. Lights flashed red on the monitors and something was bleeping out a warning, though she couldn’t find the source. Then everything became calm once more. It was as if the TARDIS had hiccupped mid-flight. Or collided with something, thought the Doctor. 

She hurried around to the monitor that showed her the data from the outer scanners. If she had hit something, she couldn’t see it, but then she was still hurtling through the space-time vortex, so it was possible she’d left the victim far behind. What if it was another ship? Was this technically a hit and run? No, there was nothing for it, she’d have to go back and make sure there was nobody who needed help. The TARDIS shuddered a little as it carried out the abrupt course change the Doctor demanded of it, but soon settled into its normal flight.

Once the instruments told her she was roughly where and when the thud had occurred, the Doctor studied the scanner again. Nothing. Though when she looked at the scans which tracked her journey against the real-time world, she saw that she was near a small planet in a binary system. The planet and its two suns were the only things in that part of space besides a few asteroids. It wasn’t possible that she hit the planet whilst in the vortex, but could something from that planet have hit her? 

‘Some sort of energy weapon maybe?’ she said aloud, imagining her friends on the steps, listening to her work everything out. Would be better with them actually there though. She checked the readings on the planet. It was Earth-like, not heavily populated, with the majority of its people living in large, mountainside cities that clung to the natural rock like limpets. The rest was mostly desert. A few oases. But that was it. No sign of any advanced technology. In fact according to the TARDIS’ instruments, the place was only a little further on than the Medieval period on Earth. 

Right in the middle of the desert though, showing as a small blip on the map, was a piece of technology that really shouldn’t have been there. According to the scanners, it was another TARDIS.

‘So are you inviting me for tea or trying to scare me away, I wonder,’ the Doctor said, and programmed the TARDIS to land near its counterpart below.

Dunes of fine sand, striated with deep crimsons, vermillion and golden brown undulated before her as she opened the doors, beneath a sun so strong, the heat made the air shimmer. Shielding her eyes against the glare, the Doctor could make out the other TARDIS about half a mile away, and nothing else. No cities, no trees, no roads, nothing but desert, all the way to the horizon where it met the scarlet sky. Insects buried somewhere in the sand chirruped and gave the land a heartbeat, but there was no sign of any other life. As she started towards the second TARDIS, however, the Doctor spotted bones dotted here and there across the sand, bleached white by the sun and too jumbled to identify their species. 

When she reached the other TARDIS, she found a trail of footprints leading away from it, off over the crest of a nearby dune. A single set of tracks, with a smaller indentation beside some of the right-hand imprints, as if the person had walked with a cane. Or an umbrella. From the top of the dune, she could see down into a shallow valley specked with more bones, and right in the middle was a small, wooden table and two chairs, plain things, the sort you’d find in someone’s kitchen maybe, back in the 1940s or 50s. Only one was occupied, and she recognised the little figure in his dark brown jacket and checked trousers, who sat resting his chin on the red handle of the umbrella whose marks she’d noticed earlier. As she came closer, the Doctor could see that a chessboard had been set up, and that a game was in progress. The white squares gleamed in the bright sunlight. There were no tracks leading to the other chair. The sand everywhere else was pristine.

For a moment, the Doctor debated whether to approach or whether to leave her other self to whatever it was he was up to, but then she thought of the energy beam. She had a suspicion he knew she was looking for him and had sent that out to divert her here. Maybe he had something set up to tell him if any of his other selves tried to materialise nearby and her earlier attempt had tipped him off. He showed no sign of having heard her approach, although the sand was full of tiny shells and crunched loudly under her boots. 

‘Hiya,’ she said at last.

‘I believe you wanted to see me,’ said the other Doctor, without looking around.

‘Yeah. I did.’

She went a little closer and glanced down at the chessboard, making a note of the moves. It was a weird looking game and she couldn’t figure out what was going on without actually sitting down and studying it, so she decided to forget it and concentrate on why she was here. She went to sit in the empty chair.

‘I wouldn’t recommend it,’ said the other Doctor. 

The Doctor froze, one hand on the back of the chair. She stared down at the empty, wooden seat, trying to sense some invisible presence or see through any perception filters or holograms, but as far as she could make out, it was just a plain, old, battered, empty wooden chair.

‘Why, who we waiting for?’ she asked, but she moved away for the chair.

‘An old friend,’ said the other Doctor. ‘It’s quite all right to talk in front of them. They won’t mind.’

The Doctor sneaked another glance at the chair, now looking for evidence of any other presences nearby. Or perhaps he was just being neutral in his choice of pronoun. Either way, there still didn’t seem to be anyone or anything there.

‘I don’t remember this planet,’ she remarked casually. 

‘There was once a thriving civilisation here,’ said the other Doctor. ‘Its inhabitants systematically wiped themselves out over the course of a few centuries. What little of society remains keeps to itself and hides in the shadows in the mountain cities. What was once a great ocean full of floating palaces and cities made of glass and coral is reduced to this.’ He leaned down and scooped up a handful of sand, which he let slip through his fingers with a faint hiss. ‘All through hubris. Your move.’

It took the Doctor a moment to realise he wasn’t addressing her with the last comment and she was about to call him out, tell him she was sure he was just trying to unnerve her and that there was nothing there. If there had been any sort of creature, definitely any sort of creature he could sense, then she’d be aware of it too, but when she turned around, the slight difference in the chessboard caught her eye. She’d made a mental note of the pieces’ positions, even though they’d made no sense. A rook had shifted one square to the right. There was no breeze. The other Doctor hadn’t moved except when he scooped up the sand, and she wasn’t standing anywhere near the table. Nothing could’ve knocked the board or the pieces. The Doctor shuddered, suddenly feeling like she was being watched from all directions.

‘It must be something very important,’ said the other Doctor, jerking her out of her own thoughts. ‘if you’re willing to risk the wrath of the Time Lords or the fate of the universe to go seeking out your former selves.’

‘Yeah, well,’ said the Doctor, ‘the Time Lords aren’t in any position to bother with me.’

He raised an eyebrow. ‘Indeed.’ 

She wasn’t sure if that was a question or if he knew something or if he just wasn’t surprised. He reached forward and moved a bishop. The Doctor had another quick go at trying to understand the state of the game and again failed, but she left it at the back of her brain, hoping her subconscious could figure it out for her. 

‘There’s something I need to ask you,’ she said. ‘Something I’ve been asking the others as well. Not that I think you’ll know all the answers, because if you did then I wouldn’t need to ask anyone. I’d know.’

‘But you’re hoping something I say helps to clear the cobwebs.’

‘Exactly.’

‘Shame I can’t offer you a chair,’ he muttered. ‘But go on. I’ll do my best.’

After sorting everything out in her head, the Doctor told the story for what felt like the hundredth time that day. Nothing stirred around her as she spoke, though she had the distinct impression that her audience was listening intently and didn’t just consist of her other self. When she’d finished, she waited, while he considered the chessboard again.

‘Well?’ the Doctor prompted. ‘I thought if anyone would tell me something eerie and profound, it’d be you.’

‘Sorry to disappoint,’ he replied. ‘Though it wouldn’t surprise me to learn the Time Lords had some murky agenda up their sleeves. And speaking of murky agendas, are you really considering asking the Valeyard?’

The Doctor shrugged. ‘Don’t know. Part of me thinks I can live without knowing, if that’s the only way to get the truth. Other part though, a louder, more annoying and insistent part, says if that’s what’s needed then there’s nothing to be done. I have to find him. Though even if I knew how, there’s nothing to say he’d actually be any help. Or that he’d be willing to help. He’ll probably just kill me.’

‘Very probably,’ said the other Doctor. ‘And even if he does co-operate, that might not be the end of it. Evil does nothing out of altruism. There’s always a price.’

‘I know,’ said the Doctor. ‘That’s what worries me.’ 

As if a switch had flipped somewhere in the back of her mind, the Doctor suddenly understood what was going on with the chess pieces. Well done, brain, she thought. Finally worked it out.

‘Wasn’t it mate eight moves ago?’ she asked.

‘Winning was never the point of the game,’ said the other Doctor. ‘It’s about learning what to do after you’ve won. And after you’ve lost. Something I’m trying to teach my friend here.’

He nodded towards the seemingly empty chair.

‘Why can’t I remember doing this?’ the Doctor asked. She was about to apologise and say she’d been taking to herself, then realised that saying it aloud was the same thing.

‘Ah,’ said the other Doctor. ‘My fault, probably. I’ve set up a temporal distortion field around my TARDIS for the time being. There are some… elements I would rather weren’t able to track me down just yet. I imagine it’ll cause some memory loss.’

‘So, basically, even if you had told me everything, I wouldn’t be able to remember.’

He grinned up at her. 

‘Precisely.’ 

 

9.

 

For want of a better idea, the Doctor set the co-ordinates to those she’d intended heading back to once her mission was over, though she adjusted the time a little, so that instead of arriving the day after she’d left Graham, Ryan and Yaz as planned, the TARDIS landed just in the shadowy doorway of a square, glass office block on St Paul’s Parade just after eight o’clock the same evening. So far as the fam were concerned, she’d only been gone a couple of hours. For the Doctor, it felt like a couple of lifetimes, but she resisted the urge to go find anyone. 

She’d promised herself she wouldn’t bring any of them into this until she knew exactly how dangerous it might be, and even then, she wasn’t sure she wanted to open up her hearts about all this. Much though she liked having the humans around, sometimes they just couldn’t understand. And there was always the possibility they’d reach their ‘weird’ threshold. Maybe she’d go too far, show them something that was just too much for them to bear, and then they’d be gone. No, better to deal with this alone. But she found herself looking at the narrow, poorly lit alleyway outside and craving chips. The one thing humans should be known for in intergalactic history was chips. There was nothing else like it in the universe in terms of comfort food. Rose had taught her that, not that she’d ever admitted just how amazing those bits of greasy, oil-fried root vegetable chunks actually were back then. 

Certain that anyone wandering down this stretch of road and seeing the TARDIS would just think it was an old relic of the sixties that, for whatever reason, hadn’t been cleared away to make space for all the shops and offices and pedestrian walks in the city centre, she locked the door and followed the street to its far end, where she could see the brighter streetlights of the Peace Gardens and Pinstone Street beyond. 

The glare from the sodium lamps turned everything an orange-tinged grey and reflected in the puddles from a recent bout of rain, though despite the cold night, she still saw shadowy figures amongst the trees or standing in the glare of the adverts on the bus stops. There had to be a chip shop somewhere around here.

The TARDIS didn’t usually bring her right into the middle of the city like this, the Doctor mused. No one paid her much attention as she wandered past the older, red brick buildings around the gardens and scanned the rows of chain stores on their lower storeys for anything that looked like it’d serve deep fried food, but it was a lot busier here, even in the evening, than out near Yaz or Graham’s flats, where she would usually land. The Doctor walked along, her head low to keep the drizzle out of her face, but watched the crowds in her peripheral vision, swerving every few steps to avoid someone striding in the opposite direction.. 

A spatter of giggles straight ahead made her look up at last and she found a group of girls, arms linked, heading her way, though they didn’t seem to have noticed her. They took up the entire pavement though so the Doctor stepped aside to let them pass, just as someone else tried to overtake them from behind. The figure and the Doctor collided and it took her a moment to disentangle herself from the other person, muttering apologies all the way. She only glanced up as she was about to carry on, then she stopped and stared. The figure she’d bumped into halted too.

‘Yaz,’ the Doctor said, a suspicion growing that the TARDIS’s sudden decision to come to the town centre wasn’t as random as she’d thought.

‘Doctor,’ Yaz replied. ‘Did you not go away? I thought we weren’t meeting ‘til tomorrow.’

‘Yeah, I know. I… I did go…’

‘Are you all right? You look… I don’t know, like you’ve seen a ghost.’

The Doctor forced a smile. ‘Couple actually. What are you doing out here?’

Yaz shrugged. ‘Couple of people I was at college with wanted to meet up and get a couple of drinks.’

‘Oh, right, then I’d better let you get off…’

The Doctor made to move past and carry on along the street but Yaz blocked her way. ‘No, no, it’s fine. I didn’t really want to go, to be honest. I mean, they were mates and everything but we’re not close. I’ll just text them and say something’s come up. Come on, you look like you could use some company.’

The Doctor tried a few more protests, but in the end, found herself walking with Yasmin down a side street, where they came to a small but brightly lit takeaway that oozed the scent of salt and vinegar from its great, steel fryers. It was only as the elderly Italian man behind the counter started shovelling chips into a little polystyrene box that the Doctor remembered she hadn’t brought any money. She turned to apologise but saw Yaz already bringing out her purse. 

‘On me,’ Yaz said. 

‘Thanks.’

They walked in silence for a long while, the Doctor picking at her food while Yaz just carried hers. Without any kind of discussion, they made for the TARDIS, then with a sigh, the Doctor flopped down onto the steps of the console room and Yaz set about picking apart the thin, white, plastic bag that contained her own dinner and the couple of tins of Coke she’d bought to go along with it. 

‘So,’ Yaz began, ‘if I ask you what’s up, are you going to tell me or are you going to be all mysterious and try to deal with everything on your own again because you think whatever it is is too big a thing to ask for help with?’

‘Do I do that?’

‘All the time.’

‘Well,’ said the Doctor, ‘turns out this time it is too big a thing to ask for help with.’

‘See, that’s the thing,’ Yaz said before the Doctor could elaborate any further. ‘You never asked. I’m offering.’

‘Yaz, it’s…’

‘No. I know what you’re going to say, that it’s too dangerous or it’s too complicated or something like that. What do you think I am? Do you think I just go travelling with you to have a laugh, see some new places, so I can be special? I do it because you’re my friend. Because I want to. And that means I want to know if there’s something upsetting you. I want to know because I want to do anything I can to help make it better.’

‘You already are,’ said the Doctor. 

Yaz reached over and took her hand. ‘Then tell me. What’s going on?’

The Doctor sighed again and considered admitting all of it, telling Yaz what had happened in Gloucester and what the Master had told her about Gallifrey, but the same defences that had stopped her from confiding in anyone so far were still in place. 

‘I’ve got a problem,’ she confessed at last. ‘It’s… It’s like you say, it’s too complicated and to be honest, I don’t know exactly what it’s all about. Just it’s to do with me, my home. My past. Who I am. So after I last spoke to you, I went to see some people I know, people I knew in the past. That’s where I’ve been. Couple of them gave me an idea of how I might find out what’s going on, but it’s not the best idea I’ve ever heard.’

‘Dangerous?’ Yaz asked.

‘Most likely. It’d involve tracking down someone who, last time we met, was trying to kill me.’

‘You have a lot of people trying to kill you.’

‘Sign of a life well-lived,’ said the Doctor with a half-smile. ‘But this one really is… of all the people I’ve stood against in my life, he’s the one who really scared me.’

‘But he could help?’

‘Could help,’ said the Doctor. ‘Not to say he will help. And that’s supposing I can find him. I’ve only got a vague idea where to start and it could take ages.’

‘Then isn’t it a good thing, you running into me?’ asked Yaz. ‘You’d think the TARDIS actually planned it. Knew you shouldn’t do this on your own.’

‘If that’s why we landed here,’ said the Doctor, ‘me and her are going to have words. I didn’t want to drag any of you into this.’

‘You didn’t drag me into anything,’ said Yaz with a smile. ‘Well, maybe at the start you did a bit. But not since then. Since then it’s been my choice. And it’s my choice now. So tell me this, even if you can’t tell me what it is we’re trying to find the answers to – is there no other way to find what you’re looking for than going to this bloke?’

‘Not that I can see, no.’

‘And would finding the answers make you feel better?’

The Doctor mulled it over. ‘I hope so. I think so. Whatever the truth is, it’s got to be better than not knowing. Because not knowing, that lets my brain make up all its own theories and explanations and none of them are very pleasant. Even if the truth’s bad, if I know what it is, I can deal with it.’

‘So finding this bloke could, potentially, make you feel better? If he doesn’t try to kill you, that is.’

‘Yeah.’

Yaz shrugged. ‘Then tell me what I have to do.’

After another moment’s hesitation, the Doctor exhaled, another of those breaths that seemed to deflate her whole body. 

‘You could go to the TARDIS library for me. I’ll give you a list of books to check, and I’ll do the same here with the database.’

After draining the last of her Coke, Yaz shoved the empty tin back in the plastic bag and got to her feet. 

‘Right, what am I looking for?’

The Doctor went over to the console and found a stack of post-it notes amongst the clutter between the controls. Buried under a pile of string nearby, she spotted a pen and scribbled down the names of the books she knew she had on board that might be useful.

‘You’re looking for any mention,’ she explained, ‘of the Valeyard. If it’s anywhere, it’ll be in these books. Might just be in passing. But any reference. There’s a panel just inside the door that’ll tell you where everything is on the shelves.’

Yaz took the note and studied it with a frown of concentration. ‘What’s a Valeyard?’

‘It means a court prosecutor. It’s who we’re looking for.’

‘You need a lawyer?’

The Doctor let out a short laugh. ‘Not exactly. Do you know how to get to the library?’

‘I think so,’ said Yaz. 

‘Down to the end of the corridor, take a left, first door on the right, down to the end of that corridor and there’s a picture of a horse. Take a right there, then the fifth door after that. Or the fourth. One’s the swimming pool, so it should be easy enough to tell which is which. Unless the library’s flooded again, which I hope it isn’t. Made light reading a bit difficult.’

She watched as Yaz headed off, oddly both happy and sad to have someone there at last. She was fairly sure the TARDIS had engineered their ‘accidental’ meeting, maybe drawing on a trace left over in the telepathic circuits or just general, and usually infuriatingly accurate, intuition. The Doctor knew she shouldn’t be happy to have Yaz there. What she was proposing would lead her young friend into unjustifiable danger. But she did have to admit that she was glad not to be doing this alone. The library and database search alone would take ages if she’d had to do it all herself. And after all, maybe neither of them would find anything, and they’d have to forget the whole idea. But at least they’d have tried. The Doctor would just have to find solace in that.

After four hours of trawling through vague references and following leads that went, ultimately, nowhere, though, the Doctor’s spirits sank again. She flicked through pages on the monitors, the words starting to blur and mush together. Yasmin returned an hour or so later, looking equally tired and crestfallen, and when she stood at the top of the stairs and huffed out a sigh, the Doctor knew she’d been unsuccessful too.

Yaz shook her head and headed down to her. ‘Nothing, sorry. I checked all the stuff you said but only one even mentioned him and it only said that he existed, not where or when.’

‘Same here,’ said the Doctor. ‘Just have to come up with another plan, I suppose. It was always a long shot.’

‘That one book I did find,’ Yaz went on, ‘it said the Valeyard was a Time Lord. So he’s one of your people?’

‘Yeah. Sort of.’ A chill ran down the Doctor’s back and she looked up again from the monitor just as Yaz reached the console. ‘Did it say anything else about him?’

‘No. Nothing.’

‘Ah, right.’ The Doctor allowed herself to relax again. She hadn’t considered what might be written in those books, what Yaz might’ve learned. Part of her wanted to just tell the truth, but the notion returned at once that, hearing something like that, that there was an evil version of her out there in the universe, might be that final thing that scared Yaz off. 

Then again, the Doctor thought, shouldn’t she give her the chance to be scared? By holding back anything she thought was too weird or too terrible was she disarming her friends against the enemies out there? If they knew the truth they could prepare for it. Then she decided that in this case at least it didn’t matter. They hadn’t found the Valeyard so Yaz wasn’t likely to come across him. If she ever needed to know the truth, the Doctor would just have to tell her. It was only fair.

On the other side of the console, Yaz bent down and picked something off the floor. When she straightened again, the Doctor saw it was a hardback book with a battered dust jacket that was faded almost to white along the spine, so that the title was impossible to read. Yaz flipped it open and read the first few pages idly. 

‘Is this Graham’s?’ she asked. ‘UK Habitats of the Canadian Goose?

For the second time in as many minutes, the Doctor turned cold. ‘You what?’

Yaz turned the book around so the Doctor could see the title on the cover.

‘Where did you get that?’ the Doctor asked.

‘Just on the floor there, under the console.’

‘Is there… is there anything in it?’

Yaz leafed through a few more pages, then held the book by its spine to shake it out. Something slid out and fluttered to the floor, so she stooped to retrieve it. Yaz held it out for the Doctor to see. A thin, cardboard bookmark in glossy black with elegant white lettering.

‘J J Chambers Antiquarian Booksellers,’ Yaz read aloud. ‘And then a load of numbers and symbols.’

‘Let me see.’ The Doctor studied the lines of text for a while then swallowed. ‘Time-space co-ordinates.’

The dread she felt must’ve registered on her face, because when she looked up, the Doctor saw Yaz regarding her with concern.

‘What is it? It’s just some old book about birds.’

‘It’s not,’ said the Doctor. ‘I think it’s an invitation.’

 

10.

 

The planet was an orphan, floating alone on the edge of a debris field that was all that remained of its sun and siblings. Only a handful of stars filled its perpetually dark sky. They were so far into the future that most of the galaxies had died in flame long before, although from the lonely little rock on the very edge of what was left of the universe they would only have flared briefly then blinked out of existence forever. The only light on the barren surface came from bioluminescent algae that covered the rocks and cast an eerie glow in bright shades of green, blue and pinkish red that reminded the Doctor of a black light theatre show. It also made the shadows, by contrast, even thicker and darker. 

About a mile away from where the TARDIS had landed was a patch of blackness too regular to be natural. The Doctor stood in the doorway and watched as an electrical storm threw vivid white veins across the clouds that had gathered above the structure and in the brief instant of brightness, she made out a building, very Earth-like and ordinary compared to the wilderness it sat in. It did, indeed, look like a shop, something more suited to Dickensian London than the very edge of the cosmos. It had a single storey and two bow windows of lead-paned glass on either side of a narrow doorway, though it was too far away to see more than that. By the looks of it, it was the only structure on this planet.

‘That it?’ asked Yaz.

‘Suppose so,’ said the Doctor. It had to be. There was nothing else here. But telling herself she was making sure she’d got the right spot and the right building was putting off actually walking towards that structure and whatever waited inside it.

She felt Yaz take her hand and give it a reassuring squeeze. The warmth of the other girl’s skin seemed out of place in the desolate scenery, but it sent a little rush of adrenaline through the Doctor’s veins and finally gave her the push to step out from the TARDIS and pull the door closed.

‘Right then,’ she said. ‘Looks like we’re doing this.’

‘You’re really scared,’ Yaz remarked, with a mild frown of surprise.

The Doctor shrugged. ‘Terrified.’

Yaz didn’t let go of her hand, but nudged her slightly and started walking across the wasteland, so that the Doctor was forced to follow, no matter how much she was screaming inside her own head to run away and never look back.

For a long while, they walked in silence, their footsteps loud as gunshots on the gravel, though every few seconds, the skies growled as the storm raged on. There was a brisk wind howling around the rocky outcrops that studded the plain. It stirred up the sand and flung handfuls of it around in spirals that hissed like serpents. And yet the storm clouds remained in position above the bookshop. 

The Doctor could make out the sign above the door now. J J Chambers, Antiquarian Booksellers and Collectors, Books Bought and Sold. The gold paint of the lettering was flaking off in chunks. The windows were dusty and opaque, but she could see a faint glow from inside, dim and reddish as if only a few candles were burning. The Doctor realised her hearts were drumming like caged birds against her ribs. Go back to the TARDIS and get out of here, they silently shouted. It took all her concentration to ignore them, and all the other instincts coursing around her body that told her to go.

It’s just fear, she told herself. He’s probably doing something to enhance it. Psychic field maybe. Playing with anyone who was desperate enough to actually seek him out. He’d be watching the two of them heading his way and probably having a good old evil laugh about it. He had the upper hand, and the Doctor didn’t like that one bit. Still, nothing else to do. They were here now.

When they finally reached the door, the Doctor sensed a slight hum of technology through the walls, but she still couldn’t see through the windows. The glass was milk-bottle thick and hand-blown, distorting the light that shone weakly through it, but the dust and grime blotted everything else out. A cardboard sign pinned to the door read, ‘Open’ and a small bell tinkled to announce their arrival as they went inside. Yaz pressed in a little closer to the Doctor and the two of them stood for a moment on the threshold, taking in the sight.

The shop was at least five storeys high inside. They were standing in an atrium, able to see a cutaway section of the building above. Intricately carved spiral staircases curled up amongst rack upon rack of books, threaded with balconies and dark passageways that disappeared into the shadows. Freestanding shelves formed a labyrinth ahead of them, all at odd angles so that it was hard to tell the exact shape of the shop floor. Somewhere, a clock chopped away the seconds, and the electronic hum continued underneath, but there was no other sound, no sign of movement, and no indication of what they were meant to do. 

The door clattered back into its frame and both women jumped in fright. The sign must now be turned around to read ‘closed’, as the Doctor could see the ‘open’ side through one of the panes of glass in the door. A verse by Mary Howitt came unbidden into the Doctor’s mind: 

 

“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,
“‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I have many curious things to shew when you are there.”
“Oh no, no,” said the little Fly, “to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.”

 

Yeah, she thought, not the most reassuring thing to think at that precise moment.

‘This wasn’t as big from the outside,’ Yaz said.

‘No,’ the Doctor agreed. She edged forward and gazed upwards. ‘This is his TARDIS.’

‘How come there’s not a control room?’

‘It’ll be here somewhere,’ said the Doctor. ‘Best watch our step though. Place is probably full of traps.’ She took another step forward and addressed the room. ‘All right, I’m here. Any chance we can skip the mind games and just have a chat? I’ve had a long day and I’d rather get this over with.’

A loud creak came from one of the bookshelves nearby. The Doctor glanced round, just as the shelves swung outwards from the wall, revealing a doorway behind. Through it, at the end of an unlit corridor, she saw a six-sided console, time rotor glowing a faint red, with silver walls, studded with roundels, in the background. She looked over at Yaz, who gave her an encouraging if nervous smile back, then they moved off. 

The bookcase-door closed silently as soon as they were in the passageway and the hum of the TARDIS’ machinery grew slightly louder, the sound pulsing regularly like the ship was breathing. The console room was smaller than her own and much darker, as if the TARDIS had powered down. The actual console sat in the centre of a low dais surrounded by raised walkways. Gothic columns clad in dark grey metal supported the upper levels and, at the same time, created dozens of places where something could be hiding. 

‘Oh, come on then,’ said the Doctor, ‘make your big entrance. We’re waiting.’

‘Surely you’ll allow me a few moments to savour this situation,’ said a voice behind them. 

The Doctor turned, keeping Yaz close by her, and scanned the walkway, trying to find a shape in the shadows or a flicker of movement. Then he stepped into view from behind one of the columns. He hadn’t changed his face since they’d last met, but he’d ditched the black and white robes in favour of a black frock coat, shirt and waistcoat, in some kind of jacquard fabric that shimmered as he moved, like spilled ink. He smiled, though there was nothing pleasant in the expression.

‘The Doctor needs my help,’ he said, then laughed. 

‘Yeah, well, enjoy it while you can. Nice place, by the way. Cosy. Out of the way though. You’d almost think you were hiding from someone.’

The Valeyard’s smile faltered slightly. 

‘Sorry,’ said the Doctor, ‘did I hit a raw nerve?’

‘Might I remind you that you sought me out. You need me. Perhaps you might bear that in mind.’ He came down to the console, though never took his eyes off of her.

‘You’re looking well though,’ the Doctor continued, hoping she sounded unfazed. ‘Considering. Last time I saw you, weren’t you dead?’

‘The rumours were greatly exaggerated,’ said the Valeyard. 

‘Same body, I see.’

‘You’re stalling. What is it you want?’

‘I think you know,’ said the Doctor. ‘I want the truth.’

‘Are you certain of that? No matter what that truth might be?’

The Doctor swallowed. ‘Of course.’

‘Even with your little friend here?’

‘Hey,’ Yaz protested, but the Doctor squeezed her arm and willed her not to draw attention to herself.

‘I mean no disrespect, Ms Khan,’ said the Valeyard.

‘How do you know my name?’ Yaz asked.

‘I know all their names. All the people the Doctor has led to their deaths. In all of her lives.’ He said the last with a knowing look directly at the Doctor, and she was surer than ever that, unnerving though it was to be there, she was in the right place.

‘Just tell me what you know,’ she said.

‘Oh, it’s not quite as simple as that.’

‘Why doesn’t that surprise me? What do you want?’

The Valeyard prowled a little way around the console, trailing his hand idly over the controls without actually pressing any of the buttons. None of the monitors were active and the Doctor again wondered if the ship was conserving energy. How long had this TARDIS been stuck out here?

‘You’re right to say I’ve come here to be hard to find,’ he admitted at last. ‘There is a… creature I may have, well, aggravated somewhat.’

‘What, a nice bloke like you?’ asked Yaz. Again the Doctor tried to mentally tell her to be quiet. 

‘What creature?’ she asked, drawing the Valeyard’s attention onto herself rather than Yaz.

‘It never stays in the one spot for very long,’ he replied. ‘It is relentless. Once it finds its target, it never stops. It’s only a matter of time before it finds me. Unless you find it first.’

‘Why don’t you sort it out yourself?’

‘My TARDIS isn’t what it used to be,’ the Valeyard admitted. ‘This creature and I… we have been engaged in this chase for a very long time. Alas, its resources are more renewable than mine.’

‘What is it?’

‘A very powerful being. Very old.’

‘And why is it after you?’

He shrugged and gave a faint smile. ‘I may have tried to tame it for my own purposes.’

‘You mean enslave it?’ asked the Doctor.

‘I underestimated its power,’ said the Valeyard. ‘And its capacity to hold a grudge.’

‘I won’t kill for you.’

‘Perhaps you won’t have to. I’m sure you can find some way to persuade it to cease its pursuit. That is your speciality, is it not? The peaceful solution.’

‘And you haven’t tried that?’

‘Not my style. Besides, I couldn’t get near enough to offer a deal. It would kill me on sight.’

‘If it’s never in the same place for long, how am I supposed to find it?’

‘Because I can tell you where it’s been.’

He reached into his pocket and drew out a piece of folded paper.

‘Time-space co-ordinates,’ he said. ‘I managed to imprison it once, but only temporarily. This is where you’ll find it. Bring me proof that it’s no longer interested in my death and I’ll fulfil my end of the bargain.’

This was some sort of trap. The Doctor’s brain practically screamed this at her. It was a stupid idea. And yet she found herself holding out her hand to take the note the Valeyard offered.

‘If this is a trick…’ she said.

‘If you think it is, then leave,’ replied the Valeyard. ‘It’s all the same to me. As I said, you sought me out.’

The Doctor turned to go, studying the note and the co-ordinates. She didn’t know the location. It was, ninety-nine per cent probability, a trap. That was if he even let her and Yaz walk out of his TARDIS alive. So far, so good though. They’d made it across the console room without something zapping them both.

‘Be careful,’ the Valeyard warned as the Doctor and Yaz reached the door. ‘The creature pursuing me is far more dangerous than you consider me to be.’

The Doctor gave him a mildly sarcastic smile over her shoulder, then hurried back out through the bookshop before anything had a chance to get her.