“I’m just going outside,” Sarah told the guard on the outer door. “I may be some time.” She’d made a sort of game of that, once, taking a petty pleasure in making references nobody else would get; now the uncertain look on his face just irritated her. “Come on, we are still allowed outside, aren’t we? Some new Presidential mandate hasn’t come down the wire in the last two microspans?”
The guard shifted in place. “Most people don’t want to go outside, Lady. Makes them feel uneasy, not being in the walls.” He punched an access code into the keypad and then stood well back, as if the sheer space outside the door might drag him out if he got too close. Capitol-boy, she decided. Born there, regenerated there, would one day die there, another ghost for the Matrix.
“You know, you should come for a walk with me. Breathe some air that hasn’t been through a filtration plant. A couple of lungfuls of nice healthy germs would be good for you.” But the guard had gone back to his Beefeater stance and stare, solid by the side of the door as if that would keep his world in balance: all the things that should be inside, inside; all the things that should be outside, outside. Rass… God forbid he might go for a wander in open air, look up at a sky instead of a ceiling. Masters of all time and they were a bunch of agoraphobics. She’d done a programme on that; one of her better ones. Apparently the Public Video Regulatory Commission had never received so many complaints. “Please yourself, then,” Sarah said, and stepped out into the real world.
It was getting dark — and with all the adjustments she’d made in her years on Gallifrey (decades? Something funny happened to your sense of time here and it was hard to tell) she was never going to get used to that burnt umber sky, the barely-there shimmer of the transduction barrier. The air was heavy and humid and about a thousand times better than the perfectly controlled oxygen supply inside.
She meandered along the path away from the city, wishing the ground wasn’t too sharp to take off her shoes. The camera unit bobbed behind her like a lost balloon. “Oh, go away,” Sarah told it. “Go back and help Lainva cover the rest of the debate, I’m sure it’ll go on for another couple of weeks.” The machine whirred — a bit sadly, if she was going to start anthropomorphising things — and floated away.
“How very obedient. You should have a go at training my K9.”
There were whole books of protocol for greeting the President. Sarah didn’t have truck with that sort of thing, especially as the hypothetical Lord High President of Gallifrey the books talked about was invariably male, so she simply turned and waited for Romana to catch up with her. She was in her full regalia, collar and all, holding her robe so the hem didn’t trail in the dust, and she looked like the sort of girl Sarah’s mother had always wanted her tree-climbing daughter to play with.
“Don’t you get tired of that get-up?”
“Would you like the full diatribe, or will ‘yes’ do?” She looked enviously at Sarah’s shirt and trousers.
“I thought the government crumbled if you left the Capitol,” Sarah said. “Like the ravens on the Tower of London.”
Romana, of course, was the one person on the planet who might know what she was talking about, assuming the Doctor had ever taken her to London, and had told her about the ravens. It seemed like the sort of silly thing he’d think was important. “I sometimes go for a walk in the evenings. It’s my eccentricity. All Presidents are secretly expected to have one.”
“Isn't yours having an alien bodyguard?”
“Even better. Two eccentricities practically make a scandal.”
Sarah looked back at the city, still too close for the top to be visible. Leela must be lurking somewhere, maybe in one of the shadowy places between the mounted lanterns. “Light,” Romana called, and one of the globes detached and followed them at head-height, casting an orange glow over the dry ground.
From a mindless amble they had turned onto a downhill path. Romana was leading the way and Sarah childishly thought you’re not in charge of me, I didn’t vote for you. I would have if I was allowed to vote, but that’s not the point. Aloud, all she said was, “There’s nothing down there. There’s nothing for miles, you’d need a skimmer to get to so much as a tree.”
Romana stopped. The light glided to rest behind her. Sarah squinted ahead, trying to make out what Romana was looking at. Ahead of them was nothing but blackness, as if they’d unexpectedly reached the end of the world.
“We needed more space.” Romana’s voice had dropped to a whisper. “The breeding pens beneath the Capitol were full, so we had to move some of them outside. I come down here most nights, just to look at them.”
Something itched at the back of Sarah’s eyes. It was the feeling of being confronted with something sitting sideways to the three dimensions she could see, and it was like ice slowly melting behind her brain. If she concentrated with every ounce of herself she could see wisps of colour against the sky, a shadow of the Northern Lights.
“I’ve never regretted not being a Time Lord,” she said. “No offence, but I’ve never agreed that you’re superior to everyone else in the entire universe. But I’ve always wanted to know what unshelled TARDISes look like to you.”
Romana was simply staring at the blank space, rapt. “I wish I could tell you,” she said. “And I wish these weren’t being bred for warships. I wish I didn’t have to force through an end to the regeneration limit, scrape away one more thing that makes us what Rassilon wanted us to be, just so my soldiers can die forever and get up again. I wish I thought we were going to win the War, because we might crush the Daleks but I’m not sure we’ll be Time Lords any more.”
She looked ghostly in the lamplight. “You must be pretty confident I’m going to keep this off the record,” Sarah said, too startled to say anything else.
Romana seemed to collect herself. “Oh, I trust you not to broadcast this.” She took a last look at the ships — beings, whatever they were — and turned back to the path.
Not for the first time, Sarah thought how quiet it was. Somewhere there were animals and Outlanders, but the only sounds were their own footfalls and breathing. Listen very carefully and she’d probably hear three heartbeats.
“Are you really going to recall the rebels?” she asked. “Completely off the record, Girl Guides’ honour. I just need to know if…” If the Doctor’s going to be coming back. Years and years since she’d seen him — that stupid business with the trial — and he might have another new face for all she knew, but that never mattered.
This must have all been obvious from her face because Romana said, “Do you wish you’d let the Doctor take you back to Earth?”
“Sometimes.” Yes: on days when she missed takeaway food and Underground stations and writing on real paper and Christmas at her aunt’s and music and parks and blue skies. No: when she looked around the offices she’d created at the staff she’d trained, or when a Councillor in one of the most powerful races in the universe was ousted from power because she’d been the one to uncover those dealings on the side, or when people forgot themselves and addressed her as ‘Lady’, as if for a moment they’d had the imagination to think a human might be their equal. “If he’d left me on Earth,” Sarah said, “if he’d had time to take me home, like he’d meant to, before he got dragged back here… everything would have been different. My whole life. There’d be a woman on Earth who might be married or have children or be seventy and chasing aliens with UNIT from her zimmerframe. But she wouldn’t be me, this me.”
They were at the top of the hill, almost at the walls. She wouldn’t be glad to get back to the stultifying air of the Council chamber, but that was her job, who she was. And she did it better than anyone else; that was worth something, wasn’t it?
“Listen,” Romana said, gently enough to set alarm bells ringing in her head, “you haven’t noticed anything strange, have you?”
“No, of course you wouldn’t, humans aren’t time sensitive; Leela can’t see it either.”
The knot in Sarah’s stomach eased. She was only talking about the TARDISes again. “Well, it’s not a big problem, is it? I’m sure if something goes wrong with the Ships some of your technicians…”
“A ship flew over South Gallifrey today,” Romana said. “They tried to communicate with us. Two technicians in Flight Control swear on all their lives that they spoke to them before the ship vanished off the screens. They said it was the flagship of the Thalek empire.”
Thals. She’d never forgotten Skaro, had had that little piece of nagging fear when the War began that she might have helped set the pieces in motion… “But there is no Thalek empire.”
“Not in this timeline. But the fallout from a time bombardment can do very odd things.” Romana stepped close, reached out as if she meant to touch Sarah’s face, but stopped a little distance away. “I’ve seen Borusa wandering around the place, put out that I’ve taken his seat. And the Doctor, an old man, wondering why the President is trying to claim they used to travel together when he knows he’s never set foot off Gallifrey. Real people, who walk and talk and argue and then just fade away.”
“I don’t know why you’re telling me this,” she whispered, lying.
“I saw a picture of you once. I’m not sure what your name is —“
But you’ve known me for years! We had a huge row on-air the night you were elected! Leela’s never liked me because she knows I’ll pick the truth over you and she thinks I can’t be trusted! How could some sort of time bomb make all that up from nothing?
“I’m Sarah Jane Smith,” she said.
Romana’s smile was full of sympathy. “Hello, Sarah. I don’t think it’ll be long now.” She held out her hand, and Sarah took it, counting her own breaths. Four, and she was dizzy; five, and the city lights pinwheeled around her head and there was so much she’d left undone —
Six. Romana’s hand closed on empty air.
“You were talking to no-one,” Leela said, peeling herself away from the dark wall. “I thought you had no gods to commune with?”
“Just trying out another speech for the endless debate.” She rubbed her fingertips together. “When we bring the Doctor back, remind me to ask after a Sarah, won’t you? I think I owe it to her.”
“No one.” She looked up at the dark sky, the stars and satellite and, no doubt, the Dalek ships, hanging in orbit like carrion birds. “Absolutely no one.”