"Well," the Master said, squinting at the blurred readouts. "I suppose I should have expected that." Somewhere in the deepest recesses of his TARDIS, there was a creaking groan in reply - as though to punctuate this complaint, one panel of the console seized the opportunity to burst into flame.
"Oh, for-" Grimacing, he snatched up the fire extinguisher and set about making what repairs he could. "A time-ram, you fool," he muttered as he worked. "It's a wonder we weren't torn to shreds. Of course the systems will malfunction." For a moment, he considered the possibility that the Doctor and Miss Grant might be experiencing similar troubles, but quickly discarded the notion: after all, Kronos would scarcely have spared them only to destroy them again on the voyage home,
Another little series of pops and sputters sent him stumbling back from the console, shielding his eyes from the glare of miniature explosions, and a claxon sounded from somewhere nearby. He rolled his eyes. "Yes," he said. "Thank you for that timely warning."
Before he could make another attempt at extinguishing the flames, the rotor shuddered to a halt, and suddenly the air was full of the shaky sound of rematerialisation, like ungreased engines grinding. He winced and clapped his hands to his ears, but the sound trailed off within moments. That was something, at least: a successful landing meant that most systems were still functional, which in turn implied that the TARDIS might be able to repair itself in his absence.
Keeping an arm raised in case of any further explosions, he advanced on the console and squinted down at the screens. "Earth," he said, and sighed. Would he never be free of this accursed planet?
The door control jammed the first few times he tried it, but after a minute's pushing and some choice Gallifreyan curses it came unstuck, and the doors creaked open amid yet another shower of sparks. Coughing, the Master dashed outside, waving his hands in an attempt to disperse some of the smoke.
A bald human in a suit stood gaping at him, surrounded by a group of younger-looking humans in long, white coats. One of them dropped his clipboard in astonishment.
The Master cleared his throat, and glanced over his shoulder at the TARDIS. It was still stuck in the shape of a rather old-fashioned example of twentieth-century computing; judging by the comparatively sleek design of the medical devices all over the walls, here, this was at least the early twenty-first.
"Ahem," said the Master, trying to ignore the billows of smoke coming from the side of the machine. "I don't suppose you know who ordered this old relic?"
The man in the suit shook his head, slowly.
Thinking quickly, the Master took in his surroundings; most eyes were on him, but it looked as though his TARDIS had at least had the decency to materialise in an area cordoned off by plenty of curtains. Most of the humans probably hadn't seen its actual appearance, and those that had could easily be persuaded otherwise. The place itself seemed to be an ordinary Earth hospital, crammed with sick people and half-hearted attempts at cures.
"Well," said the Master, and plastered a sickly smile on his face. "I don't suppose you can tell me where Dr.-" He feigned a coughing fit, waving a hand at the smoke. "-might be? I was supposed to bring this in to him."
"Yes, but-" The man waved a hand expansively. "What is it?"
"Oh," the Master said, and intensified his stare. The man bent under the hypnotic suggestion with all the ease of a professional dupe. "Just a prop for a play later in the day. For the children."
"Yes," said the man, staring blankly at him. "For the children. I remember, now."
"Right," said the Master. "Now, don't mind me. Go right back to-" He paused. "-whatever it was you were doing."
The man blinked and straightened. "Right! Miss Jones, I believe you were about to list for me the bones of the foot most prone to stress fracture!"
The group wandered off, with a few backward glances, and the Master turned his attention back to the TARDIS, surreptitiously sliding the door shut before the smoke set off any alarm systems. Outwardly, it appeared undamaged, which was as he'd expected, and he could tell by the faint warmth emanating from it that some sort of repairs were underway. That was as well, then. Unfortunately, it meant he'd be stuck in a primitive Earth hospital until everything sorted itself out, which was an insufferably boring prospect.
There was a cry from somewhere behind him, a shout of such terrible intensity that he jumped and turned around before he could stop himself. A young man was writhing on a cot, and the white-coated humans and their bald leader were all huddled around the bed.
Curious despite himself, the Master stepped closer.
A young woman was hunched over the bed, an IV line in her hand, looking absolutely miserable as she tried to calm the man enough to let her stick it into his arm. The rest of the humans were watching, some with disapproval, some with relief that they weren't the ones in the spotlight. Crossing his arms, the Master came closer; this at least was more interesting than sitting around, waiting for his TARDIS to recover.
"Miss Jones," said the man with the suit, "if your mere presence is enough to put your patient into hysterics, you may find yourself ill-suited for this sort of profession!"
The woman rolled her eyes. "Look," she said to the man on the bed, "it's not going to hurt you. It's penicillin, and your records say you aren't allergic. Even if you were, we've got the staff on hand to help you. Now, come on. Just stay still for me?"
The Master blinked. It had looked like - yes, there it was again! A faint double-flicker to the eyelids of the man in the bed, a hint of green around the lips-
But what was a Leethrap from Kallagher VI doing on Earth? And in a hospital?
"That's the way," said the woman, finally snagging hold of the man's arm. He relaxed in her grip, and the Master guessed she must have been lucky enough to touch one of the many nerve endings on the Leethrap's skin that controlled his musculature. His eyes were wide and terrified.
The girl leaned in with the needle, and the Master sighed. "All right," he said, and everyone jumped, turned to look at him. "I suppose I should keep you from killing this man, you ignorant fools."
The bald man cleared his throat, and the Master shot him another glare that silenced him instantly. The young woman frowned, staring down at the needle. "It's just a penicillin IV," she said. "And who d'you think you are, anyway, barging in here like this with- with your computer from the Stone Age?"
The Master shifted his gaze to hers, and she stared back, just as bewildered. Some degree of natural resistance, then, which was a pity. Still, she'd probably forget all about the incident by the time she returned home for the night: humans were exceptionally good at ignoring the obvious. "You'll kill that man if you give him penicillin," said the Master. "It would be immensely idiotic to risk murder when all you have to do is-" He swept past the ring of white-coated men and women, and reached out to touch the juncture between the Leethrap's shoulder and upper arm.
With a shudder, it seemed to come back to itself; its swollen, infected hand dwindled down to regular size before their eyes. "Ah," it said, awkwardly. "Ta, mate."
"Not at all," the Master said, grimacing. "This idiot would have killed you trying to save your life. Wouldn't be the first time, either, I expect." He frowned. "But why are you here?"
The Leethrap shrugged. "People tell me London's lovely this time of year."
Sighing, the Master straightened up. "A tourist," he said. "I take it back; you probably find these humans to be staggering intellects in comparison."
The humans in question were staring at him, dumbfounded. He shrugged, and shoved his way back through the crowd towards the TARDIS. The woman jumped up and called after him. "Wait a minute. Do you expect us to believe you just- just cured this man by touching him?"
"Not particularly, no," the Master said, and turned around. "In fact, you might say I'm relying on your disbelief at the moment."
"Well," she said, and shrugged. "Thanks."
The Master sighed; he was beginning to wonder how the Doctor put up with all this gratitude for doing good deeds. "For what? I've exposed your stupidity in front of your peers."
She didn't flinch. "For saving a man's life," she said.
The warehouse was crumbling around him, chunks of mortar and cement and twisted skeletons of metal, and he couldn't help sighing, even as he sprinted towards the exit.
Another meticulously crafted plan gone to pot, and all because these humans couldn't even create explosives that would go off on schedule. He briefly contemplated the notion that he might have been betrayed, but it seemed more likely that the warehouse owner had mis-set the timer. In fact, he had a sneaking suspicion the man was still upstairs, likely buried under some ten feet of rubble.
Judging by the creaking ceiling and the size of the blocks of concrete tumbling down, precariously close, he'd be in a similar situation unless he hurried.
There was a particularly loud crash, and a cry of pain from somewhere behind him. He would have ignored it, but it sounded strangely familiar-
Miss Grant. Of course - the Doctor had probably sent his pet human over to spy. He turned in spite of himself, narrowly missing a falling metal beam, and caught sight of a conveniently placed row of crates. If she'd hid there, she'd probably heard the whole thing, and he couldn't help feeling a little impressed that she'd managed to stay out of sight for so long. But she hadn't emerged; he expected she must have been knocked out or crushed outright by the falling debris.
With a shrug, he turned to run for the exit again, and found his steps slowing. The Doctor would blame him for this, of course, would be utterly inconsolable without the little human to which he'd attached himself. And while Miss Grant was alive, she was a formidable bargaining chip; if he thought the Master was responsible for her death, would the Doctor even hesitate to try and destroy him for good, without all this sidestepping?
Muttering a curse, he spun around and retraced his steps, picking his way around the new rubble, past the smashed crates.
She was huddled on the floor, her arm pinned neatly to the floor by a particularly large chunk of concrete. He was surprised to find her conscious; her eyes widened in fear at the sight of him, and she redoubled her struggles.
With an exasperated sigh, he knelt down beside her and, ducking another falling bit of mortar, he snatched up a long metal support. "I'll just lever this off," he said. "Stop struggling."
She did as she was told, without speaking, though she was still shaking. With a few careful manoeuvres, he managed to get the metal bar under the concrete, and it was the work of moments to prise the large block of concrete off. Miss Grant didn't so much as cry out, though her arm was bleeding rather badly, and her eyes never left him, narrowed with suspicion and pain.
"Come on," he said, and hoisted her to her feet. She swayed and nearly fell, and as he leaned over to catch her, a chunk of concrete the size of a cricket ball struck his shoulder. "This whole place is going to come down around our ears unless we hurry!" he snapped, and half-led, half-carried her to the entrance.
They made it outside just as the main structural support of the roof gave out, and for a moment the sound of the collapse was so overwhelming that he could hear nothing else, and the dust billowing out plunged them both into blackness.
Even in the darkness, with the crash of metal and concrete ringing in his ears, he could recognise the Doctor's voice. "Over here!" the Master shouted; the girl had collapsed at about the same time as the building had done, and he lowered her carefully to the ground.
The Doctor's expression was grim as he approached, and his eyes widened at the sight of the Master, crouched over Jo's motionless form. "If you've-" he started, but just at that moment she shifted, groaning, and he pushed the Master aside to check her pulse, to mutter reassurances.
"Maybe next time, Doctor," said the Master, "you won't leave your little spy in danger."
The Doctor glanced up, briefly, but there was such loathing in his eyes, such fierce anger, that the Master was nearly taken aback. "I didn't want her to go," he snapped. "I gave her something to do at the lab, and she snuck out to follow you."
The Master raised his hands. "Well, Doctor," he said laconically. "I might have at least expected some form of thanks for saving her life."
"You don't deserve my gratitude," the Doctor said, wrapping his handkerchief around Miss Grant's bleeding arm. "Not when you were the one to put her in danger in the first place."
Gritting his teeth, the Master turned around, saw the approaching lights of ambulances and firemen, and straightened; his shoulder twinged as he did so. "I think this might be my cue to exit," he said. The Doctor made no reply; Miss Grant had lapsed back into unconsciousness, and he was trying to rouse her again. The Master shrugged and jogged a few paces, before pausing and looking back.
"You stupid, blind fool," he muttered. "You put her into more danger than I ever could."
He's surprised when he comes across her for the first time.
Oh, he'd known the timelines would start crossing and knotting and snapping once the War really started - they'd told him as much after they'd brought him back into the light, into the terrible brightness and sound, and sometimes when he plots a stratagem or battles a new paradox, he feels the shifts, the changes, the little rips and tears in the universe. The new voids echo, amplify the drumbeat in the distance - a victory march or a funeral knell?
This is different, he knows, than it should be, and still he is surprised.
It's Sol Three, of course - thanks mostly to the Doctor's meddling, too many timestreams converge on this old rock for anyone to overlook its usefulness as a battleground. Whole continents disappear and reappear from moment to moment, erased, and none of the primitive little people so much as notice their death and life and death again.
All the while, seconds, minutes, hours are disappearing, little glimpses of the here and now, irretrievably lost - and it terrifies the Time Lords, this prospect of time vanishing. He feels some satisfaction at knowing they've had a taste of what it's like to live in a straight line.
But they've sent him, the renegade, to find a way to harness the energy released by such temporal devastation, to wreak havoc in the midst of crushing defeat, and he has to admire their pragmatism, if nothing else.
(Sometimes he wonders if the Time Lords have changed him, reformed him in the resurrection, but it's all a question of survival, and the drums beat on.)
She's small, dark, staring at him in surprise as he steps out of a broom closet and into a particularly pathetic sort of laboratory, full of antiquated equipment and the smell of spilled chemicals. "Oh," she says. "Hello."
And he feels the psychic link, tenuous but present, as though somebody had tried clumsily to hide it. A spy of some sort? He's heard tales of Time Lords, captured, their identities erased-
He recovers his composure - just a girl, after all, probably some politician's daughter sent off here to die in ignorance. "And who might you be?" he says, affecting a grandfatherly tone, and she smiles - this body seems to instill trust in others, if nothing else.
"I'm Susan," she says, and frowns thoughtfully. "I'm sorry, but you remind me a little of-"
He raises his own mental defenses - this was his price, the one exchange he'd managed to wheedle from the High Council, this ability to close off if need be, to have a free hand in things without feeling a shadow over his shoulder. The girl shrugs at him, her eyes still curious, and turns back to her experiment.
And he can feel it, now, rising up in the distance, the roar of destruction approaching - time is about to rip, to unravel around him, and for a moment he's only glad he didn't overshoot the coordinates.
He produces a temporal monitor from his pocket, squints up at the ceiling, and waits. The girl is watching him instead of her experiment, and again he summons up the grandfatherly grin. She smiles, and goes back to her Erlenmeyer flask, full of something blue and bubbling.
As she turns, she nudges a rack of half-full test tubes with her elbow, and they teeter at the edge of the table for a moment before falling, shattering all over the floor, and she screams as the chemicals mix and mingle, and fumes rise, and they're both choking, suddenly-
And as she turns, she nudges a rack of half-full test tubes with her elbow-
As she turns, she nudges-
As she turns-
The roaring of the warning signal on the temporal monitor is enough to snap him back to himself, and he reaches/reached/is reaching for the dial to slow everything down, to manipulate the time differential enough to enable him to capture this disappearing moment, to take all the measurements necessary-
He turns the dial, and it's the work of a moment to reach over and shift the test tubes just slightly, so that as she turns, slowly, slowly, she turns and nothing happens.
The roaring stops; the time storm has shifted its position, has dissipated in the face of this impossible transfer of energy in infinitesimal time, and he laughs - this is the key they'd been seeking all along, the way to fight back, to change.
iv. tabula rasa
"But that's all it is," said Theta, with a tired grin. "A stupid dream."
Koschei leaned back, stared up at the hypnotic waverings of the projections on the ceiling. "I don't know," he said. "There might be something to it."
His friend shrugged and yawned. "You're a dreamer, Koschei. Admit it."
Flushing, Koschei swatted his arm. "Don't let Borusa hear you say that. He'd have us both out for a Reprimand."
"You are also," said Theta, slowly and precisely, "a coward. Anyway, there's no way I could get away with something that big."
"A TARDIS isn't all that big," said Koschei.
"You know what I mean." Theta waved his hands expansively. "It's the principle of the thing! I mean, I'd steal that and the world might as well have ended all around me."
Koschei sighed. "Beats what we've got now, anyway."
"A pessimistic dreamer," Theta amended.
Koschei gripped Theta's hand in his. "Look," he said. "It doesn't even tempt you? Being able to go out there and see everything, anything? Standing at the start or the end of something huge, just because you want to be?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Theta. "I could go out and join the CIA."
Koschei scoffed. "A Prydonian in the Celestial Intervention Agency?"
Grinning, Theta pulled his hand free and went back to his none-too-flattering sketch of Borusa. "You're right. Stealing a TARDIS would be less of a scandal."
"We've got computers that could do it better," Koschei pointed out. At Theta's puzzled look, he pointed to the paper. "Your perspective's all off. It looks nothing like him."
Theta sighed. "No appreciation for the fine art of caricature. It's a weakness, my friend."
"Anyway," said Koschei, "I think you're just getting soft. Becoming a good old Time Lord like the rest of them."
Theta rolled his eyes at the obvious goad, but Koschei knew the words had made their mark. "I'm hardly like the rest of them."
Koschei folded his arms, leaned back still further in his chair, and grinned.
"Prove it," he said.
And he's dying, now, and he's died so many times that the sheer immediacy of it doesn't strike him for a long moment; it's timelessness for a dying race that never had any concept of stolen moments.
It hurts, he knows, somewhere off in the terrible, echoing silence of his mind. It hurts, and he's dying, and the Doctor is above him, broken.
He feels the regeneration triggering, just within his grasp, and he can hear the drums on the other side, he can hear them approaching with all the roar of death-
For a moment, he knows the future as clearly as he ever has done, and he's in the Doctor's TARDIS, and they're mad or destroyed or both, clinging to their old shades, the friends, the enemies, the passing acquaintances in the halls of the Academy turning to something more.
The general society of Gallifreyans would rarely form lasting associations, he knows, and it's because they had the curse of perspective, of looking to the future and seeing the same patterns, again and again into history and death. Change, anathema to their nature, was their only saviour.
It's a different sort of transformation, he doesn't say. A different sort of transformation, is all. You've always understood the need for change.
And this, then, the supreme irony - dying for the Doctor's sake, because what life would he have if his best enemy regenerated, after taking everything away, after taking hope and destroying it again and again?
I'm not dying for you, he doesn't say. I'm dying because it's convenient, because it suits my purpose.
Everything, then, coming down to this, to the Valiant and a year of power, of sheer victory, and he forces a smile.
"I win," he says.