She is on the last of her twelve allotted lives when she first sees the graffiti. All of those lives had been lost to the war, and this one would be too.
She’d never had even one chance to die of old age.
It’s hard to say what precisely about the scrawled symbol catches her eye. Perhaps it is only that it is new, on a battlefield on endlessly grinding cycle of death and regeneration, regeneration and death, where the only novelty is an injury that incapacitates but does not kill. But no, it cannot be that–for the battlefield itself changes constantly, becomes places that could have been, or were yet to come, or could never be…
Whatever quality of the graffiti catches her gaze, it holds it long enough that she does not see the flash off the muzzle of the gun–there are projectile weapons in this latest version of the battlefield–and she dies for what, she realizes as she watches the blood spill over her fingers, must be the last time.
The first warrior crosses the room in three strides. Every step has purpose, each muscle movement is necessary, is sufficient, is perfect. She is lean and strong and she crosses the room in three strides, and kisses the second soldier.
The second soldier stands stall, stands stiff–then yields, melts. The second soldier is a tall, beautiful woman. The second soldier is a bent, care-worn crone.
The first warrior still kisses her gently.
The second soldier is a skeleton.
The first warrior kisses her bared teeth, her exposed jawbone.
The second soldier is dust.
The first warrior weeps.
Or perhaps this is only the way she remembers the dream, after.
The first thing she sees when she wakes is the symbol, swirled in dry red-brown pigment on the ceiling of the med tent.
“I was supposed to be an astrophysicist,” she tells it, because that makes as much sense as anything, as much sense as waking up when you are supposed to be dead for last time, when they were supposed to let you die.
The graffiti is simple; stick figures, really. But elegance in the sweep of its stark lines, a drawn haiku.
Two figures, facing each other. The first, her guard up, her posture taut, ready. A weapon in her hand, a knife? The second figure standing tall, proud, defiant–but is that just a hint of uncertainty in the way she squares her shoulders? A weapon on her hip, a gun.
“Truth be told, I probably would have ended up an air traffic controller,” she tells the symbol. “Docking and departing, docking and departing. Back and back and forth.”
Beneath the first figure is the mathematical symbol for constant.
Beneath the second figure is the mathematical symbol for chaos.
She stares at the two figures until she falls asleep.
The first warrior walks to the second, cradled in a mass of wires, half-in, half-out of a portal. “I will not let it.”
A curved half-smile. “Will you shout a thousand years of temporal-biological studies into submission?”
“I have learned subtlety.”
She crosses the room. She walks like a predator. Her kiss is soft but urgent, deepening.
The second warrior breaks it, coughing for breath. She is old now, so old. “Nothing subtle about–”
A death rattle seizes her throat.
She is bones, she is ash.
“The Council has allotted unlimited regenerations to ground troops,” the medic explains. He frowns as he checks a read-out. “Your artron energy levels are high, even with your battlefield time taken into–”
“Lassa.” The word is out of her mouth before she knows it. A spark, a light, a hope seized onto in the darkness. “Lassanjorandlor–”
But the medic is already shaking his head. “Her last regeneration ended long before the Council’s orders went into effect, relative-time.”
“We could go back–”
“The time vortex is already tortured beyond repair at this location; we’re under strict orders not to let its integrity fray below thirty-three percent. No one’s going to authorize TARDIS use or paradox. Not for one soldier of no special importance.”
He keeps talking, telling her that he’s going to give her an inoculation against artron energy poisoning, telling her to keep aware of potential symptoms (thoughts or feelings not her own, small localized temporal phenomena, a sensation of epiphany) but the words of no special importance rattle around in her skull and all she can see is Lassa’s smile–beautiful in any regeneration, but is she now remembering the fifth or the seventh, they all blur together and Lassa slips away–and she barely notices the timequake siren go off, and it barely registers when it hits and the walls of the tent flicker and become black (they were always black now) and the medic grows old (now he was always old).
She is brought a mirror. Her hair is ash blonde now. She does not see herself in her eyes.
On the metal back of the mirror, someone has scratched The Two Warriors.
In the way of such things, once she has seen it for the first time, the graffiti seems to be everywhere.
The first figure is always the same. The stance, the alertness, the knife.
The second figure is often different. Tall, proud, slightly uncertain. Bent, aged, tired and resigned. A skeleton. A pile of dust.
Constancy and chaos.
At first glance, it seems as though they face each other in battle. But there is something else, something intense but not destructive, something–
“Disgusting,” says her superior officer, when he finds her staring at the latest example, scrawled in the dirt where they mine for the crystals that make an effective energy barrier shield for now, though they didn’t before, but they always have and always will, and maybe they won’t tomorrow if tomorrow comes after today instead of before yesterday.
“That propaganda. The Two Warriors.” He spits. “A bunch of old President Romana factionalists, whoever puts those up, if you ask me. Liberals. Saying we’re in this for the safety of the universe, protecting the lesser species. Rassilon’s got the right idea. Gallifrey for Gallifreyans.”
He says the names Romana and Rassilon and many others, and she hears them, but he might as well be talking about gravity or the speed of light or the ancient gods Death, Pain, and Time–they are abstract and far removed from the dirt that has found its way into the cracks in her hands. Did Romanadvoratrelundar exist? Did a young girl look up at a balcony and listen to her speak? Did she agree that war was necessary, was just?
Was there a warrior, a savage from another world, at the President’s side? Did a young girl see her too?
“Once we defeat the Daleks and force them to hand over their time technology,” her superior is saying, “let the rest of the universe deal with them on their own.”
He tramples the dirt with his boot.
The timequake siren goes off, and she relives the entire conversation. Watches the boot descend, The Two Warriors ground into dust.
“You know what you have to do.”
“I know nothing. I am an untutored savage.”
“…I will make it quick.”
And the knife falls, no, not falls, soars, straight and purposeful and true–
It frightens her, this latest dream. She makes herself wake before it ends.
She stays awake, listening to the screams of the living.
She cannot tell if those who scream are Daleks or Time Lords.
“The Leelasara,” one of her comrades says, catching her staring at the latest piece of graffiti.
“Aren’t you a believer?”
“I…ah, I just call them The Two Warriors. That’s all I’ve heard them called.”
“Oh. I saw you staring and I thought…well, never mind.”
“Wait!” she calls after him, but he’s gone, around the corner of the wall–lasers screaming and shells exploding overhead, arrows and nuclear weapons–or perhaps winked out of existence.
Another name. A place to start.
“It has been so long since I have seen another human. Or even another warrior.”
“I feel for you–”
“I know. I feel it too.”
She keeps a notebook, starts to piece it together. Rumors, innuendos, filling in the things people leave unsaid. Old newspaper clippings–though Gallifrey has never had physical newspapers to clip things from, but she finds the newspapers nonetheless, they appear and she flips through them and some of the events they report happened years ago and some never happened and sometimes entire pages will be her childhood poetry or an astrometrics assignment she lost or a love letter Lassa sent her.
The Two Warriors are political propaganda. No, they are a religion. No, they are a fad. No, they are a secret code. What Two Warriors, never heard of Two Warriors, oh, those things, I don’t know, they’re just there.
She dies, regenerates, dies, regenerates.
She doesn’t like the official explanations, hates sharing her Two Warriors with other people’s interpretations. Her search becomes solitary. She finds things: an investigation into Dalek time technology, an attempt to recreate and/or revisit one of their experiments with a time bomb. A report of a collision with chronic hysteresis. Sudden silence, only the official party line being trotted out: all was well, experts were being consulted.
A picture of one of the experts: worried eyes, curly shoulder-length hair. A name she should remember… a name from history, good and bad; a name mothers used as a warning and teachers used as an insult; a name people had told stories about at parties, their tone halfway between mockery and awe…ah yes, the Doctor.
And other pictures, much more interesting, more hinting than revealing, but still: the Lady President’s bodyguard Leela, her shoulders set, her eyes alert, her body blocking someone else from view. (The someone else a shadow, barely, a set of lines, and weren’t those lines familiar, the lines of her shoulders?) The bodyguard before a laboratory door, her jaw set, her eyes determined, the expert with his chin inclined, trying to talk down to her and not succeeding. A censored lab report, the subject’s eyes blacked out and the face entirely blurred, but the body, the lines, tall and proud–another lab report, the lines bent and worn–and another, and no picture at all–and then the young woman again–
A bullet in her brain. Regenerate. A knife in her belly, slow agony over several days. Regenerate. And ill-planned offensive and it would be starvation but she drinks bad water and it’s over so much more quickly. Regenerate. Dalek weaponry–so odd, she thinks as she dies, to see actual technology again after so long.
She reads the articles over and over. She looks at the pictures over and over. There is something there, hiding, the truth, she can feel it in the curve of the letters, in the arrangement of print black and white and grey pixels in the pictures, the outlines of the story like a statue beneath draped cloth, she is so close to the truth…
Death and regeneration, regeneration and death. She keeps seeing herself in mirrors and thinking it’s someone else; it’s so hard to keep track of who she is now.
And the graffiti proliferates, the Leelasara blooming like flowers over the battlements.
Flames, and a phoenix rises from the ashes. It burns too quickly, and falls to flame and ash again. A wolf howls, rage and pain and despair.
“End it,” cries the phoenix. “End it.”
“Sleep,” says the wolf, and she kisses the phoenix and crushes her skull with her teeth. “Sleep, my love. It is the end.”
The phoenix does not rise again.
In a laboratory far away, the warrior does not weep, but glares defiant at the dreamer.
“It was the only way. You are not our gods. She had served you long enough, and her suffering will be no more.”
Her troop is gassed in their sleep and her regeneration is out of her control; she wakes missing an eye, her legs twisted and weak. She is told to drag herself back into battle. She does.
The High Council doesn’t care for her superior’s reports of this graffiti, this unpatriotic nonsense being scrawled and carved and inked everywhere as if Gallifreyan soldiers were the kind of undignified savages that felt the need to scratch ‘Kilroy Was Here’ or the equivalent all over the place. Investigations are underway. And in the meantime, all discovered examples are ordered erased.
But not all of the inscriptions can be erased, and so the orders are changed. The graffiti is to be altered, the propaganda co-opted to serve the purposes of the High Council, who are wise and know what is best.
Her superior tells her to give the first figure a Gallifreyan collar and robes, but the set of the first warrior’s shoulders makes it clear that she will shake it off.
Her orders are to give the second figure ‘Dalek characteristics;’ the uncertainty in the second warrior’s stance becomes more pronounced with the addition of eye stalk and head lights, as if she is skeptical of her new accessories.
The first figure is constant and has a weapon, and the second is chaotic and becomes a skeleton and dies, and so it’s easy to see how the High Council might have made this mistake. Might have thought that a few alterations and the graffiti would look like an allegory of obvious Time Lord dominance.
If only they would have looked closer, they might have seen that for all the militance of the first warrior’s stance and the pride in the second’s, they are not opposed.
But now–well, now it looks like two people in Time Lord and Dalek costumes are about to snog.
She laughs aloud when she sees the final result, the almost-final piece of the puzzle falling into place.
She knows The Two Warriors were here. This was the first place she saw it. It refused to be scrubbed off, no matter how many soldiers were assigned or what chemical agents were used.
But now it is not there.
Lassa waves at her and she waves back, distracted, trying to find the significance of The Two Warrior’s vanishing, their abandonment, their–
Lassa is dead. Lassa has been dead for a long time now. Too long ago to be given extra regeneration cycles.
She looks up, and around, and sees the other small changes, and wonders how long she has been walking in a different time zone.
She takes a step, and white fire flickers around her fingertips. Artron energy. There was something, something she should remember, symptoms…
Her hand moving almost of her own accord, she etches the symbol into the wall, and goes to look for Lassa.
She is walking and walking and walking. Sometimes she reports for duty, sometimes she does not. Sometimes she is yelled at. Sometimes she is beaten. Occasionally she recognizes the person doing the yelling or the beating, but more often than not their face is strange to her.
She walks and walks through time, and everywhere she goes she leaves The Two Warriors behind, her touchstone, her lifeline. Her story, the one she must keep telling for it to be true. And it has to be true or she will have to stop walking. She leaves them on walls, on ceilings, on floors, on weapons, on food. Leaves them in ink and paint and blood.
She never sees Lassa again.
A wall, blue. She is dying, again. Doesn’t even know how. Were there symptoms she was supposed to…? The last time, anyway. The last time? The last of her third extra regeneration cycle. Where is the medic? The last if there is no medic.
Let the medic not come. Or let him come, keep fighting. The difference? Don’t know. Can’t remember. The Two Warriors, The Two Warriors are the only thing she has left, the only thing she has always had.
A wall, blue. She dips her fingers into her blood. Begins to make the lines. Up, down. Thirty degree angle, forty degrees, ninety. A dot, a slash, a curve.
“It’ll only come off, eventually, in the time vortex,” says the expert. He’s come out of the notebook where she was recording her observations, her investigation. What’s his name again? He knew them both, didn’t he? Yes.
“I’m the Doctor,” he says, and scoops her up in his arms and carries her inside.
She closes her eyes and when she opens them she’s in a sick bay. The Doctor. She remembers. He knew them both.
“What’s this, then?” he asks, tapping at the notebook clutched between her fingers.
She is bursting to tell him now, The Two Warriors, who they are. He’ll know–he can prove–
But if he doesn’t have faith. If he doesn’t listen. She’s built the story so carefully, spun the world, and he might say the wrong thing, a fact but somehow wrong but too right so that it will bring it all crashing down–
“They give us meaning, the other species,” she tries to explain. “Constancy and chaos, they give us, our gods…our helpless, fragile, short-lived gods…we have to protect them, we have to fight–love, and death, and love–”
“That’s ‘love’ twice,” he says. A slight smile. Like the second figure, in her dreams.
“Because it’s important,” she insists. “The Two Warriors, the Leelasara–”
“What did you say?” His eyes sharp, noticing her suddenly.
“The kingdom, the encompassing kingdom!” She’s weeping now, with how close she is, how much she understands, how much she needs to make him see that it wasn’t all for nothing, that it all makes sense now: “Death is the only thing that gives life meaning, definition, the warrior kills and is killed, the soldier dies and is reborn and dies until she is killed, constancy and chaos, love and death and love–”
But she’s lost him; he’s pulling away.
“Shh, it’s all right, don’t get excited. The war’s over now. Will be over. Soon.”
“All over,” he confirms. “You’ll be just fine; I’ll take care of you. Hold tight, I’ve just a few things to check at the controls…”
The lights are bright…
Her fingers trace an invisible Leelasara on the blanket, and she slips away to the encompassing kingdom.
On an out of the way moon where the sky is a cold grey and only the wind sweeps the jagged white stones, there is a grave.
The stone that marks it bears no name on its surface, for the man who dragged it there did not know the soldier’s name. In the end, perhaps even she did not know it.
But the surface of the stone does bear a drawing.
A warrior, knife drawn. Below her feet, the mathematical symbol for constant.
A soldier, gun holstered. Below her feet, the mathematical symbol for chaos.
In a circle around them, in a language with only one speaker left:
‘Love, and death, and love.’