Koschei clung to the thin infirmary mattress with grim determination as the world -- the Universe -- spun around him.
Some of it was purely the result of massive physiological changes and immune system fluctuations as the pseudo-infection of the Rassilon Imprimatur swept through his system, he knew. His genetic material was being rewritten, and symbiotic nuclei were replicating through every cell in his body following the ceremonial "treatment" earlier in the day.
Not all of the effect was entirely physical, however, which was more disconcerting. The Academy had been rigorous in its mental training, and he could feel the well-worn pathways of his own thoughts and senses . . . shifting.
He could sense Gallifrey turning beneath him, both infinitely slow and terrifyingly fast; he knew where the Sun was, in relation to his current location on the world's surface (down through the planet's heart and a little to the left -- it was just after midnight); he could feel Gallifrey's two small moons swinging by with clockwork precision . . .
Either that, or he was having the hallucination to end all hallucinations. It was difficult to tell, really.
He opened his eyes and stared up at the plain, whitewashed ceiling, in hopes that would help. It didn't. He wondered if he should hazard another sip of water from the tumbler at his bedside. He'd managed one a while back, and had kept it down through sheer force of will. It lay in his upset stomach like a bolus of molten lead, refusing to absorb properly.
He groaned aloud as ice and fire stabbed through his bones. This was what he'd fought and slaved for, all those harsh years at the Academy, the final step in becoming a Time Lord, rather than a merely ordinary citizen of Gallifrey.
Right at the moment, failure would have been preferable. Anything would have been preferable. Possibly the only good thing in his entire situation right now was that the drumming in his head was, for once, entirely overwhelmed.
Another stab of pain, and he groaned again.
An answering groan from the next bed over, separated from his by a thin, hanging curtain.
Then: "'Schee?" in a faint, wavering voice.
"Theta," Koschei responded. It was just the two of them in the darkened room. They were two of only a handful of their years'-mates who had passed the final course of training, and the others were at home right now, being coddled by their Families and Lineages.
Koschei and Theta were not.
"Hand and Eye, 'Schee, I think I'm dying . . ." Theta told him, sounding exhausted.
"You won't," Koschei shot back. "Hardly anyone does."
Silence for a moment.
"But what if I want to?" Theta replied, with a ghost of his usually argumentative nature showing through.
"Then you're out of luck," Koschei told him, actually managing a small smile at the ceiling. "You'd just regenerate, now."
Another groan. "Can't be any worse . . ."
"Dunno -- to hear the old-timers talk about it, regeneration's no party," Koschei told him. His breath was short, and speaking was difficult, threatening to send him into the partial respiratory bypass of which all Gallifreyans were capable. His heart labored with the lack of oxygen.
Someday, he'd have a new body, and it would be capable of complete bypass, with two hearts and nearly infinite health. Twelve new bodies, one after another, a vast, promising vista of time opening up in front of him . . .
His stomach lurched as his distracted mind loosened its hold on his body's automatic responses. Ruthlessly, he reasserted control. That was what he was best at, out of all his subjects of study -- control of himself, and others.
"Rassilon's Teeth, don't talk to me about parties. The thought makes me ill." Pause. "Come to that, everything makes me ill right now." Another groan . . . followed by an astonishing string of curses, a different language for every word.
That was Theta's particular skill -- languages and cultures. He had an incredible knack for understanding alien minds, and a boundless interest in doing so . . . bordering on perversion, some had muttered in the shadows. But that hadn't stopped him from completing -- barely -- his training and being given the Gift of Rassilon, the Imprimatur.
"You'll feel better," Koschei told his friend, only half-consciously adding a weight of command to his words that would have compelled instant obedience in a lesser being.
Theta only snorted. "Nice try."
Koschei snorted back, and closed his eyes again.
The mattress lurched beneath him, or seemed to, and his eyes snapped open again. Maybe eyes-open was better, after all. He decided to try sitting up. He almost fell back over again, but then he steadied. Being upright actually seemed to help, after a moment.
On an impulse, he managed to roll out of bed and get to his feet. He wavered, then pulled aside the curtain between the two beds.
Theta rolled a watery eye in the direction of the movement, and took in Koschei's upright (if less than stable) posture.
"I hate you," he croaked, with feeling.
Koschei made it to the edge of the bed before his legs gave out. He dropped gracelessly, but managed to stay mostly balanced as he sat.
"Got tired of the way my bed was spinning. Thought I'd see what yours was doing," he said, feeling a little light-headed.
"About a gazillion klicks a minute, that way," Theta told him, with a weak wave of his hand in the direction of Gallifrey's rotation. "I don't think I'm ever getting used to this . . ." Another cramp of pain hit him and he stopped breathing for a moment, then released the rest of the air in his lungs with a groan.
Reflexively, Koschei reached out and took Theta's hand where it rested limply on top of the sheets. Theta gripped back gratefully, the small contact an impressive token of their friendship in a society where touch had all but vanished. Their hands were sweat-slippery, making the handclasp feel strange. Folk of Gallifreyan descent rarely sweated, except under extreme stress. Their efficient metabolism normally kept them from needing such indelicate means of maintaining an even body temperature.
Theta gasped for breath, his shoulder-length hair spread limp and dank on his pillow. He no longer wore it long and knotted, as was his right. After the last screaming, knock-down verbal go-round with his Family he'd angrily chopped it short, almost to the point of indecency. There was a reason he was suffering the infiltration of the Imprimatur alone in the Academy infirmary with a disowned orphan like Koschei.
"Remind me again why we wanted this, 'Schee?" Theta continued, when he could speak again.
"To be masters of Space and Time. To stand in the Panopticon and see the turn of the Universe. To travel among the stars . . ." Koschei began, repeating the familiar old words, polished by time and longing.
"Oh, yes, right." Pause. Then a thready chuckle. "I think the joke's on us, this time."
Back before their little alliance, the other students had found Theta and Koschei to be easy targets for their amusement and diversion. Afterwards, though, anyone who picked on either or both of them found themselves quickly, brutally, and mercilessly pranked. While nobody ever managed to trace any incidents back to the two outcast students, the level of poetic justice in each instance caused suspicions to run high -- among instructors, as well as among their age-mates. Eventually, they were left alone.
Immediately upon their completion of their Novitiate training, both Theta and Koschei had been immediately snapped up by the Prydonian College for further training. Nobody was even remotely surprised, given that College's reputation for deviousness.
"No, the joke's on them," Koschei told him. "We passed -- we did it. We're Time Lords." He grinned, and it was his real grin, not the one he used to charm others. It was an expression that could make even the stouthearted flinch, but it never bothered Theta. He just grinned back, as he was doing now.
Then Theta groaned and grimaced. "You'd think they could at least give us some painkillers . . ."
"I think they want us to suffer as they did, and as has been tradition, back to the days of Rassilon," Koschei told him, dryly. Back to the days of Rassilon was a nauseatingly familiar refrain in the Academy, apparently employed in the hopes of impressing students.
"Gods-rotted hidebound old bastards, every one of them, curse 'em for the dead weight they are . . ." Theta said decisively, his voice thin and rough.
"Careful! You just cursed me -- and yourself. We're included with them, now."
"No we're not," Theta told him. "And we never will be, either of us."
As he said the words, Koschei realized they were true . . . and something changed, something huge and intricate suddenly crystallizing out of a sea of infinite possibilities, futures branching off in a dizzying spray of probability -- the tangible/intangible result of a decision made. An important decision.
Their grip on each other's hands tightened instinctively, and they stared at each other wide-eyed.
Theta broke the startled silence with his laughter, the strongest sound he'd made all night.
"'Schee, did you feel that? That was Time!" The corners of his eyes crinkled up with the breadth of his joyous, wondering grin -- then the grin vanished and his eyes were wide again, his expression desperate.
"Basin!" he croaked. "Quickly, I'm about to . . ."
Koschei got the basin in place, barely.