He picked up the Parsonses out of curiosity, because in Earth’s calendar it was 1973 and they were far, far from home. Already he regrets it. These women will never be companions. Mother and daughter occupy his console room as if it were hostile territory, engaged in conversation too quiet for him to hear.
They accept him as alien a bit too readily. No change of mood alarms them, no wizardry impresses. Oh, they’re competent enough, in unthreatening ways. They can make small talk, and sometimes do. On occasion they even flirt with him, but he sees this for what it is: protective coloration. What women do is survive.
They remind him of Jo Grant, his little prison mouse. He tells himself it’s their clothes.
He drops his mask. The flirting stops.
At first he is struck by the similarities between them. We live by ones and twos, in the chinks of your world machine. They say they’re looking for a bit of wilderness, away from the huge authoritarian organizations doing unreal things. He thinks he understands. “My world was like that too,” he tells them. “I ran to Earth. That’s why I love it. I love your planet.”
They look back, appalled. Earth was not, after all, common ground. He remembers too late where they ran from. Take us with you. Please, we want to go with you, away from here. It’s what he always hears in their voices, sees in their eyes: Sarah and Martha, Donna and Rose. It occurs to him at last to wonder why.
But, but. “Sarah’s a journalist,” he tells them. “A fine one. Martha’s a doctor too.” Not like him, but still. “And Romana was President.”
“How nice,” says Mrs. Parsons. Women have no rights, Doctor, except what men allow us.
And the world machine is Universal. They know that now, these women, thanks to him. If, indeed, they ever truly doubted it.
Think of us as opossums. They do not want either kind of romance, either kind of mate. They are too used to playing dead, and anyway, they’ve always had each other. They offer him nothing, just the smooth surface of their containment. “I know what you’re looking for,” he says in frustration, “I can give you what you want.”
They look up, eyes blank and intent as a pair of startled raccoons’. “You can take us there?” Mrs. Parsons says, mild as ever. She places no special emphasis on the first or last words, but he hears it anyway.
“I don’t know the exact co-ordinates,” he confesses. “But there was a drop point on Melora West. According to rumor.” She nods. She wouldn’t expect him to know those co-ordinates. Whatever they may share, their destination is no place for a man like him.
He frowns. He wants to ask them if they’re sure, if this is really what they want. It feels like a judgment. Instead he says, “You’d be taking a terrible risk. The node might not work any longer. The planet might be empty, or gone. If it ever existed in the first place.” Even to himself he sounds patronizing.
“Only one way to find out,” her daughter replies, cheerfully.
“Hold on tight, then,” he warns them, and they embrace the coral struts of his ship as she hums and whirls and shudders through the Vortex, the spiral at the center of everything.
“We’re arriving bit late, but I can’t help that.” He opens the TARDIS door onto an abandoned seed storage facility: Melora’s been depopulated since the Magistrine Conflicts, long before the Time War. The air is sweet with barley dust and rotting grain.
“Why not?” Miss Parsons asks, smiling. “I thought this was a time machine. Can’t we land whenever we like?” She strokes the doorjamb; his ship has captured her imagination. The possibilities are dancing in her eyes.
He shuts them down. “This sector’s blocked before a certain point on the timestream. There was a war,” he goes on reluctantly. “It left scars.” He can’t meet that twin gaze, so he turns to survey the wastes. Melora, green and vast, had been the breadbasket of an entire system. Now fields lie fallow from here to the vanishing point, somewhere between the limit of his sight and Melora’s far horizon.
The women step sturdily from the TARDIS onto an overgrown asphalt path. He has to hurry to overtake them. He leads them to the arch of a stone barn and gestures into the shadowed interior.
“The drop point was supposed to be just through that door at the back–the one marked PRIVATE. You won’t see much, but you’ll know it’s there. The transmat should activate once it’s completed a psychic scan.” He clears his throat. “I can’t go in with you. I won’t know whether you make it.”
If he followed them into that room, he would see nothing beyond a few sagging shelves, a sack of grain perhaps, a pyramid of empty canning jars. And the women would tell him, yes, a sack of grain. What a disappointment, let’s go back.
This isn’t safe. Stepping into an aging transmat, the relict of an even older dream–had it really survived the Conflicts intact and undetected? Who knew to what use it had been put? Who could say where they might find themselves upon arrival?
He should discover those co-ordinates and take them himself. It is almost his duty. He has found missing constellations, forgotten moons. He knows how to exploit a gap in the gears: time locks and loops and slips, how to hide behind a Rift in the structure of things. Or there was the TARDIS; clever old girl, she could probably find out just by asking. The transmat node wouldn’t hide from her. She’d do it for him, if he asked.
I could do it, he wants to shout. Don’t think you can keep me out if I don’t choose. Your world machine? I can operate the world machine. I push buttons, and I know where the bodies are buried. His mouth opens, the words lying lightly on his tongue: come back inside, this flight’s been cancelled. How d’you feel about taking the direct route? He’d raise his eyebrows. They’d be charmed. The mask waits, ready to grin and sparkle.
Once, to impress a woman, he’d pointed his favorite tool at a private door. Just to show her. As it swung open in the night she’d asked, “Is there anything you can’t do?” Oh, he’d impressed her. Knocked her dead. The memory rises in his throat.
He swallows his words. But his mouth keeps running and to his horror this is what comes out instead: “It may not be what you think, you know. I’ve seen plenty of women in power over the years. They don’t always bring about the Golden Age. They don’t necessarily build Paradise. It’s probably just as bad there as anywhere else.”
The mother smiles, not unkindly. “We’ll take our chances,” she says.
Her daughter adds, “A little natural habitat, that’s all we’re looking for.
“What does that mean?” he demands. “Do you even know?”
“If you don’t, I can’t tell you.” The sadness in her voice is worse than any condemnation. Then, to his shock, she stretches up and kisses him goodbye. Her lips are hot and soft as they brush his cheek and suddenly he can imagine it after all, a good place of peace and sweet disorder. Women’s liberty, furling across the unmapped landscape.
He feels it sharply, as a loss. “I’ll wait, just to make sure you’re alright.” No need, they say, as they wave and depart. He watches them disappear down the track, two sturdy figures in neat matching shorts. He waits anyway, for hours, until the sun sets in a blaze of hazel and the sky begins to fill with unfamiliar stars.
Two of our opossums are missing.
Doctor returns to the TARDIS, bred for service to her Time Lords and masters, and leans his head against her coral branches. Her breath is dry and cool around him. As always he is surrounded by her affection, which he feels at a slight remove. Beyond a barrier, he realizes, which he didn’t create but cannot cross. Take me with you, he whispers. Please, I want to go with you, away from here.
But not there, not ever. He’d been wrong. He would never see that planet, though he knew now where it was. It would always lie on the other horn of Heisenberg’s dilemma: he could determine its location, but only at the expense of its nature. Such freedom could be imagined but not observed, not by a man like him.
A man, and one who had chosen to run the machine.