The Doctor squinted as the bright Australian sunlight glared off the windscreen of the old Ford Falcon as he sent it flying down a suburban street. Around him flashed the neat lawns, low fences and driveways of middle-class Australia, each closed door a world of mundane depravity he couldn’t begin to guess at. Or perhaps just fresh tea and crumpets.
A few minutes earlier he had been driving slowly and carefully along the network of streets, guiding the car beside homes and parks, mothers pushing prams and groups of chattering children on bicycles. It was the last throes of the year and the heat was only getting worse, the cloudless sky so blue it was almost purple.
Although he was carefully searching the streets and yards of suburban bliss, he tried his best not to drive too slowly or look too conspicuous, which was difficult when he was dressed in a linen suit, long-sleeved shirt and tie. He’d had the foresight to leave his hat on the passenger seat, at least. He hoped he was passing himself off as a harmless tourist, but judging by the suspicious looks of several people — and several dogs, too, for that matter — what he was actually passing himself off as was a cruising paedophile.
He’d detected the distress signal while buried shoulders-deep in the innards of the TARDIS console, something he found himself doing more and more. Not that there was anything wrong with the space/time craft, of course–he’d spent the last decade wandering aimlessly through time and space, distracting himself with one breathtaking location after another... and failing. He was aware that the latest obsession with tinkering with the TARDIS was some part of that.
He scowled. He knew full well what he was distracting himself from.
The distress signal was of Qiaoshan origin–a race of explorers and philosophers traversing the universe, hoping to find the answer to the questions of existence. Their bodies also happened to be half composed of an energy element which phased in and out of a solid form, so their physical presence could only be registered as a half-seen glimpse at best. While their writings had been found in a thousand galaxies, no-one really knew what they looked like. It was an opportunity the Doctor couldn’t pass up and besides, a Qiaoshan on Earth during the twenty-first century was potentially disastrous; there were forces at work in this timezone which would be only too happy to find the energy elemental beings and use them to conquer or destroy the planet.
He’d found their ship crashed in the Great Sandy Desert, a beautiful, enormous thing phasing in and out of reality as the ship’s stabilisers malfunctioned. It had been breathtaking, created out of energy, reflecting and refracting the red dust and blue sky of the Australian desert. He knew the majority of the Qiaoshan onboard were dead, the ship deteriorating as the symbiotic links to the owners collapsed.
All but one.
Over a week, the Doctor had patiently tracked the lone surviving Qiaoshan, which wasn’t a difficult task. The trail of blackouts, electrocuted livestock and pets, the sightings of ghosts and the general feeling of fear and terror as human minds struggled to comprehend what their eyes briefly witnessed led a neon trail across two Australian cities and into suburbia. He’d left the TARDIS parked in Melbourne where, oddly enough, it didn’t look out of place, and bought the bulky car to more easily blend in. He was acutely aware that the primitive vehicle left a larger carbon footprint than the TARDIS.
As he had driven slowly along the neatly laid-out streets he had spotted the Qiaoshan–a blur of light and energy, crystalline and beautiful, still for a single moment before vanishing. He had quickly activated the tracking module, a motley device put together from the remains of the Qiaoshan ship, odds and ends from the TARDIS, some masking tape and a wad of chewing gum, and gunned the powerful six-cylinder engine.
The tracking module emitted a series of constant beeps, the interval between them shorter and shorter as the Doctor gained on the Qiaoshan. The being must have been terrified, trapped in an alien world after feeling the ship and the rest of the crew dying. Now it was running, running as its own life ebbed and faded–unless the Doctor could get to it and get it back to the TARDIS. There was no time to calm it down, no time for finesse.
The Doctor spun the wheel and braked hard, the car almost flying up on two wheels before executing a ninety-degree turn into a long, wide street. As he did so, he heard a long, drawn out horn blaring behind and to his right but he ignored it–his Time Lord reflexes more than made up for the fact he was driving dangerously in a car which was a dinosaur even in the current time period.
The beeping was almost continuous now and he slammed his foot down on the accelerator. Identical neat brick houses with manicured lawns and well-kept white fences rushed by in a blur as the engine screamed with power, fuel rushing and igniting in greater quantities. He glanced down at the tracking module and when he looked up again, he was heading towards something silvery, glinting in the bright sunlight.
His foot crunched down on the brake and he swerved to avoid the Qiaoshan, tyres screeching as they tried to find purchase on bitumen which might as well have been made of glass. As the car turned in the street and the world seemed to slow down, he helplessly saw the lithe, dark shape dart out onto the road in an effort to get away from the oncoming bulk of steel and plastic.
His eyes shifted as the car’s bumper swerved across in a semi-circle and they met another pair of eyes, old and grey and full of horror and... pity?
The world sped up once more. There was a sickening thump of mortal flesh against unyielding metal as the car came to a halt. He froze for a moment in a sort of dazed shock, then opened the door cautiously and climbed out.
Already people were beginning to arrive. A woman was holding tightly to her hysterical daughter who was screaming something, tears flowing down her cheeks. A man was running towards the scene. An elderly woman was gesturing, also in shock, at her overturned wire shopping trolley and the trail of groceries from the road to the pavement.
He stared down at the pathetic shape huddled inches from the front left tyre. Thankfully, there was no blood, but he knew without being told that the creature was quite dead; the impact against the front side of the car had killed it instantaneously.
“–My kitty, he killed my kitty–” wailed the little girl, straining desperately against her mother.
“Jesus fucking Christ, mate, what happened?” yelled the man, unconsciously loud from shock.
“I’m sorry,” the Doctor said, unable to tear his eyes from the dead animal at his feet, “I’m sorry, I didn’t... I never–”
“You were speeding!” yelled the mother, increasing her daughter’s hysterics, “This is a fifty zone! You were going at least eighty!”
The Doctor’s eyes never left the pathetic, lifeless bundle of fur. “I’m sorry,” he repeated softly, “I’m so sorry.”
* * *
It was a little while later when he trod heavily through the TARDIS doors, his face expressionless. Automatically, he operated the control on the console and the doors whirred shut. He raised his eyes and met those of Wolsey, the large tabby cat who reclined in his traditional place on the central rotor of the console.
They stared at one another. As cats tend to do, Wolsey froze for a long moment before licking his leg, still staring at the Doctor.
“No,” he told the cat, “I can’t. Not for this. Not with my own timeline.”
The cat stopped licking his leg, tucked it under his body and fixed the Doctor with a piercing look.
“I’m sorry!” he cried out in sudden frustration, “I didn’t... I can’t... Rassilon’s bar tab, it’s just a cat!” he looked suddenly horrified. “No, I’m sorry. I don’t know where that came from.”
The cat continued to stare.
The Doctor leaned heavily against the console and stared around at the bright, sparsely furnished room. “I think I’ve been alone for too long,” he muttered, more to himself than to Wolsey. “Too busy avoiding... just too busy.”
Wolsey made a sighing sound and shifted to get more comfortable. The Doctor stared at him and a resolute look washed over his lined features. “No. Time owes me. This time, I’m going to change it.” His hands flicked rapidly over the controls, setting a new destination. “I’m going to fix this.”
* * *
The TARDIS materialised a few streets away, earlier in the day. The Doctor walked out, looked around and cursed. He’d planned to materialise at the intersection of the street where the collision had occurred; instead, the erratic TARDIS short-range guidance systems had instead brought him further into the maze of suburban streets.
He started to run towards the intersection when he spotted the small truck parked in one of the driveways. It was a rental truck for home removals–small enough to be driven by someone holding a regular car license but large enough to, crucially, block the entirety of the intersection.
Well, he reflected as he used his sonic screwdriver to open the locked door and start the engine, It was for a good cause, after all.
He backed the truck out of the driveway with a screech of tyres and threw it into gear. The underpowered engine screamed as the vehicle surged forwards, slowing only at turns as he navigated the streets, closing in on the intersection. As he drove, he was very aware of time running out and hoped the delay hadn’t prevented him from his goal.
The intersection was only a street away. He narrowed his eyes, leaned forward in his seat and gripped the steering wheel, his foot clamped hard on the accelerator. As he rounded a corner too fast, he saw the red Ford Falcon driving towards the intersection and imagined himself beginning to turn the steering wheel and brake.
He was too late.
Yelling out despite the distance, the Doctor instinctively pushed his fist into the middle of the truck’s steering wheel, blasting his horn across the street. It was definitely too late, however–the Ford Falcon had made the tight turn and sped down the street.
The Doctor slowed the truck to a stop and rubbed his face grimly. He shook his head abruptly, as if to dislodge an unpalatable thought, then jumped down from the cab and activated his Stattenheim remote control. The TARDIS materialised beside the truck and he stomped in through the door, muttering to himself.
* * *
The TARDIS materialised shortly afterwards, further along the street where the collision had taken place. The door opened almost immediately and the Doctor rushed out, looking worried but determined. Looking up and down the street, everything seemed peaceful and empty to his searching eyes.
Then there was a screech of stressed tyres and the scream of an engine followed by the roaring of a truck’s horn. The moment of peace shattered like a crystal champagne flute falling on a slate floor and he was running as fast as he could towards the source of the sound, his feet pounding on the pavement. As he ran he could feel time warping around him, pushing him away–very much like an immune system rejecting a foreign body. His senses, genetically coded to be time-sensitive, felt the continuum reacting to his presence and he felt himself pushing hard against it, like an overwhelming buzzing in his brain, threatening to disorient him, make him fall onto his knees and let time take its course.
He screamed in ancient Gallifreyan, words even he was not meant to know, words of power which his people had cursed time and space to bend to their will.
The car was bearing down, the windscreen strangely dark and opaque. The world around him was monochrome, as if the colours had bled out. Even as he ran he saw the elderly woman flailing her arms instinctively as he bore down on her. Her hands left her small shopping trolley, full of plastic bags and groceries, and in the strange white sunlight it shone, silvery and electric, as it slid on small wheels away from her and towards the gutter between the pavement and the street.
The Doctor’s eyes met that of the old woman. Her eyes were dark, opaque, without pupils and utterly inhuman. As he gazed into them, he saw stars dying, galaxies burning, the darkness spreading across the universe at the end of everything.
She smiled, sadly.
He stopped running.
The colour bled back into the universe and she was old, frail, frightened and very human, shocked and confused as the trolley’s wheels hit the guttering and it flipped out onto the street. The Doctor watched as his slightly younger self glanced up from the beeping machine on the passenger seat, react to the silvery glint of the trolley and swerve desperately, braking hard.
He watched as the cat, reacting almost blindly to looming death, bolted onto the street. He looked away as he tried to block out the sound, and his eyes met his own through the windscreen.
And then he walked back to the TARDIS.
* * *
Wolsey regarded him carefully from the top of the time rotor as he walked in and shrugged off his coat, the weight of it suddenly annoying him. He looked down at his clothes, the plain linen suit, the white shirt and the red tie and sighed, leaning on the TARDIS console, his expression dark.
On an impulse, he reached out and turned a dial on the console. The room darkened, lit only by the glow of the time rotor and the lights on the console. He considered the effect for a moment, activated another control and tapped at a series of keys until hidden light sources activated and gave off a muted blue glow.
Wolsey purred in approval, having never been fond of the sterile white light which usually filled the console room. The Doctor smiled, looking at him, and his smile slowly died.
“They’re all gone, you know.” He growled. “Mel, Ace, Benny, Chris... Roz.” He closed his eyes and sighed heavily. “Just you and me, now. At the end of everything.”
Wolsey looked at him worriedly.
“I don’t suppose you’ve ever felt this way,” he breathed, his eyes still closed. “So tired. I’m so tired. I feel weary to my bones. This body is... wearing out.”
Wolsey meowed. The Doctor opened his eyes and regarded him. “Everything changes and entropy increases. The constants in the universe. Do you know, my left lateral heart is still damaged after the funeral? I think I’ve been...” he stared for a moment into Wolsey’s eyes. “No, you’re quite right. This isn’t about being tired.”
His hands flew across the console. There was a groan of power and tall lamps appeared around the console room, as if they had always been there. Flickering candlelight played behind him from a tall candelabrum.
“Is it fate? Destiny? The ultimate, cruel irony of the universe... What use is any of this? Hah! Time’s Champion...” he spat the last two words out, causing Wolsey to tense. “Unable to save even a cat.”
Wolsey leapt lightly onto the console, managing to avoid putting his paws on any vital system, and half slid and half walked up to the Doctor. He regarded him for a moment, and gently scooped him up in his arms, holding his warm, furry body close.
The walls of the console room were partly wooden and partly dark, tarnished, coppery metal. The ceiling rose higher into the shadows above where arcs of electricity seemed to play momentarily. The room seemed colder.
He held Wolsey up slightly so the cat could look around. “I can’t fight it,” he whispered hoarsely. “It’s coming. Out of the darkness. It’s coming and I can’t plan for it, I can’t change it. The end... my end... Perhaps the beginning of an even greater end...”
The console itself was changing, the technology writhing and twisting, the texture of the metal darkening and roughening. The Doctor smiled. “It doesn’t matter. This is what is coming. For my sins.” He kissed Wolsey on his furry head and placed him gently on the suddenly wooden floor.
“I am Time’s Champion,” he muttered, mostly to himself. “And this will be my tomb.”
* * *
In the weak light of dawn, in an alleyway in Brisbane, the last Qiaoshan died. It died in a blaze of beautiful light, the reflection of the light of dying stars and burning galaxies. And after it died, there was only darkness.
Someone watched, and grieved.