Adelaide walked to the door of her house, soul as heavy as the rest of her body felt in this sudden return to full Earth gravity. Less than an hour ago, she had learned that she would die for the future of the human race. Now the Doctor had turned the prophecy false. Perhaps she should rejoice at the years of life he had given her, but she could not. A sense of foreboding filled her. How could she live fully knowing that her existence might doom the dreams of the stars she had worked for her entire life?
Still, she would play out the hand that was dealt her. Neither she nor the Doctor could know if her living presence would be enough to inspire Susie as her death could, but it would have to be. She could pass along the stories of her coworkers who had given their lives to keep the contagion from Earth. She would work harder, do more. Surely a living role model could be as effective as a dead one? She would probably not live long enough to know if she had saved the future, but she would do her mortal best to make this wrong a different sort of right.
When she reached the open door, Adelaide realized it would not work like that. A strange smell wafted from her house, a peculiar mixture of old books, musty deserted buildings, ozone, and a nameless musk that went straight to the back of the brain to set her nerves on hyperalert. The Doctor had smelled vaguely like this underneath the fragrance of Mars dust and an oddly fruity body wash, and the smell had been stronger inside his ship. Adelaide understood without knowing how that this was the scent of Time. The Time smell from her house was augmented by a trace of a sharp smell that might be blood. The small hairs on the back of her neck prickled. There was something in her house. Something terrible.
She took one last look back at the Doctor. He turned away, but she knew that if she called for help he would come running. Anything to preserve her, his trophy of power. No, the Doctor’s help was not an option.
Adelaide drew her gun and stepped inside. What did she have to lose? As she shut the door, she looked outwards, making sure the Doctor was leaving and making sure she didn’t look at the threat inside until she had committed herself to it with a closed door. That done, she turned slowly to face the source of the mysterious smell.
There was a dragon in her living room.
The rush of pure animal fear that filled her instantly kicked on her weapons training. Before she had time to think she had shot the beast. The blast of energy hit it square in the chest. She heard flesh sizzling and saw a dark burn mark appear on its hide, but the dragon did not fall. It did not even flinch. A moment later the mark was gone.
Adelaide let her useless weapon fall to the floor. Though her heart raced and her instincts screamed at her to run, she forced herself to stand still. Lift up her chin. Look the creature in the eye. A sense of unreal calm fell like a blanket over her panic. She’d done this before.
Fifty years ago, she had looked into the eyestalk of a Dalek and seen a mind on the other side of that blank blue light. A mind poisoned by hatred and rage, but a mind all the same. It had looked back at her and, astoundingly, chosen to let her live. Looking into the red gaze of the dragon, she knew it would not make the same choice. There was no anger or hunger in its gaze, simply the pitiless inevitability of Time itself.
“I take it you’ve come for me,” she said, voice steady. The dragon did not move or make a sound, but somewhere in the space behind her eyes she felt an assent.
The dragon was huge. Its wings were folded in close to its body, its neck stooped, and it still barely fit in the living room. Pillar-like legs were propped awkwardly in between chairs and a sinuous tail curled behind her couch. There was no way this creature had come in through the door. Its presence here seemed as painfully impossible as a blue box bigger on the inside, or an endless deluge of water spouting from the mouths of her team. Yet Adelaide knew that it was her own existence that was an abomination.
She was going to die. Here, now. No choices left. Since the moment the filter had let in the deadly water, Adelaide hadn’t really had a chance, or a choice. If her actions and death were so vital to time, maybe she hadn’t had a real choice in her entire life. Still, maybe there was one choice left here at the end. She could choose to die for the sake of the universe with dignity and integrity.
“Do it, then.”
The creature inclined its head in an oddly courtly gesture of respect. She nodded back.
As the dragon’s maw closed around her, Adelaide had time to wonder whether the creature would stop with her. Would it kill Mia and Yuri also?
Or would it go after the Doctor?
* * * * * * *
Adelaide Brooke was never seen again. There was no body, no trace that she had ever returned to Earth except her crewmates’ word and the blaster found on the living room floor of her unlocked house.
Susie Fontana Brooke grew up with the mystery of her grandmother’s disappearance like a thorn under her skin. When she reached out to the stars, it was with the hope of finding a little blue box somewhere out there in the blackness, waiting to give her answers. Perhaps it is for the best that she never found that blue box, but she found answers to questions humanity had never thought to ask.
And so the future unfolded, while in the wilds of the Time Vortex, the dragons kept watch.