She hadn’t been old enough to remember how it felt when her father died. Not the first time, anyway.
The second time, knowing it was coming, and furthermore that it had to come--she still isn’t sure if that made it easier. Knowing ahead of time. Knowing the future. What had made it easier, just a little, was having the Doctor there. The Doctor as a window to something larger, to possibilities of years past and universes where her father, somewhere, was still alive. That he existed.
Still, her father died when she was a baby. A baby. She’d never really known him, only stories that were more or less half-lies and half-nostalgia, with only a little room for the truth and none for the vitriol.
Now she’s crying. Seething and sucking wet air while she sobs into the familiar hollow of her mother’s shoulder on a beach with a pale sky and long shadows and her father--but not--standing just far enough away that she can see his outline in the gray coastal mist. She’s not sure it’s any better knowing or being blindsided. Both ways, it still feels like the end of everything. Like she can close her eyes and everything that was will cease to be in the absence of the anchors of her existence. Like she’ll lift from the ground and float away.
Because this time, she hadn’t known the future. She’s long subsisted on the rock solid notion that the Doctor had a solution to everything. He was almost magic that way, how even the worst problems found a resolution in his hands, given enough time.
But saying goodbye forever, finding the best thing in your life suddenly finished, there’s nothing about it that isn’t like death.
Her father had died when she was a baby. Then he’d died again when she was old enough to remember it. And now, the Doctor has left her standing on a beach with sad eyes and a tongue too slow to tell her the truth she’d waited so patiently to earn.
He’d told her a storm was coming, but that was wrong. It had already passed and this was the quiet catastrophe that lingered in its wake.
But there are possibilities, those universes she’d once imagined where her father was still alive--now she’s standing in one, without the Doctor. It’s an exchange she doesn’t recall agreeing to make.
Without question, there’s a universe where she got to stay. Where he’d found the answer. Or at least where he’d found the words.
She’d found this one, after all. Like the Doctor once had, it had found her without even looking. The thought is a hot coal, and it burns inside her in the darkness of the night, smolders, smokes, glows amber-hot long after the tears and the seawater have both dried.
Days later, after the hours of devastated tears that edge toward hopeless fury--a weeping as physical and exhausting as vomiting--when she wakes up in a London that’s almost her own, the clarity of the day insists on a world that makes sense, one that is operated by known laws and inevitabilities, but nothing feels that way. Like waking in March and expecting December, it feels wrong in her bones. After the exhaustion takes the sorrow, all that’s left is rage, the vitriol. It’s strange--it inspires a sort of disembodied empathy for her mother, who had always chosen nostalgia over bitterness when she spoke of her father.
But Rose Tyler, Jericho Street under-7’s bronze medalist, high school dropout with no A-levels or future or, some might suggest, even common sense--she swallows it down. She cradles it, covets it. Rose Tyler, she knows that anger is the only emotion that’s louder than grief.
“You’ll have to get out of bed eventually,” Jackie tells her, softly at first, but more insistent as the days pass. “You can’t let it end you, sweetheart. I know it feels like it will. Or that you don’t get a choice, but you do. It’s your life, Rose, and you’re lucky to have it. He wouldn’t want you to just lie about and waste it.”
And she’s right. He wouldn’t. But all the same it’s impossible to go on as before. She’ll have to go on, instead, as she never has. And she will. As soon as the tears dry up.
The first place the cannon spits her out, it’s in a hectare of dirty snow and buckled concrete, a ruin of debris and soot, the hulking skeleton of a once majestic building that she can’t identify. It’s not so much the year as the physical place that’s difficult to lock down, time being relative to coordinates in material space. It’s three years, give or take, from the day she left, and fifty removed from any resemblance to a civilization in what she later estimates to be in or around Saint Petersburg. The remains of a long-dead city, bathed in radiation from a nuclear holocaust ending to a Cold War that wasn’t so cold. Protected with a proprietary blend of Torchwood insular iodine, she picks her way into what looks as though it may have been, at one point, a library. There’s a pervasive smell of mildew, a smell of old creosote and burned tires, of things aging gently in the shadows.
And there is no one alive on this Earth but Rose Tyler.
She lands in spring, but it feels like winter. It’s that kind of day before the heat settles into all the sediment and cracks of the world: July in the sunlight, January in the shade, and the stars are going out. As far as there is anything, as far as there are stars, they are winking out of the sky overhead like windows going dark in a late-night high rise, a real version of the slow, one-by-one dwindle of the stars winking out of the predawn sky, the ascension out of the dark to the civil twilight just before sunrise.
But granted, sunrise is a far kinder fate than whatever it is that’s coming.
The stars are going out. It’s a mantra; it’s an affirmation. It’s the chorus to a song that’s on repeat in her head.
Waiting for the jump circuit to reset, she sits in the dark, knees together. She waits, breathes the rubber-smelling air, listens to the sound of a world devoid of life save herself--a world devoid, once more and still, of the Doctor.
She doesn’t know what she expected, but all the same, the whole half hour before the circuit is active again, she cries the sort of tears that only can only come in the absolute absence of anyone else.
It’s a whole universe to herself, and it’s obliterated, just as it should be.
Twenty, thirty jumps and seventeen weeks later, if there is anything she’s learned, it’s that there are always constants.
Like a luxuriant feeling of gliding, soaring unencumbered, like a paper airplane slicing through air. But the landing, the sensations, the places she ends up: those are what the team calls variables. There are an entire textbook’s worth of explanations, things like quantum entanglement and delta variance and particle resonance, something about someone named Heisenberg. It’s in the mission dossier, all the settings of parameters and specifications, the kind of thing that makes Rose Tyler’s brain go dead when all she wants is to get into the harness and launch.
This time, there’s a sound like static, like a telly left on overnight on a channel that isn’t broadcasting, just that rush, that endless waterfall of sound, rising in volume until it drowns out her breath, the rattle of her thoughts, building in intensity until she wants to scream, to cry out for it to stop. The word comes to her lips, her lungs pulling in breath to shout.
And without being asked, it stops. Cuts out like someone flipped a switch. There are vague memories like a dream, pylons of concrete, a forest reaching up into the sky, dark shapes bending in silent wind. There’s a railroad, and a face with a grotesque valve where the mouth should be, glossy windows instead of eyes. A child in a gasmask. It’s a kind of hallucination for the uninitiated, an incoherent, disembodied moment in time. A scene without context, taken from her memory for no particular reason other than it’s just how the device interacts with its users, shuffles their memories like cards when it rolls its metaphorical dice, like a rock skipping over the surface of a pond.
The world first brightens, then dims. There’s a throbbing in her temple, she wants to reach for it, to press on the globe of her eye with her palm to mollify the needling pain, but her arms--they’re bound.
Her eyes, they’re taped shut. Waffle tape, the kind from a medical kit; it’s not supposed to tear out hair when it's pulled off. She doesn’t know if that includes eyelashes. Dimly, she isn’t looking forward to finding out.
Somewhere behind the red-tinted prison of her eyelids, a voice comes from what sounds like the far end of a long tunnel. “What’s the hold up?”
“Road delays. Turnover on the motorway, he’ll be a few minutes.”
Her mind is wrung out, twisted and trailing behind. It can’t seem to keep up with events. It’s an effect of the technology, a sort of incongruence of perception for a while after disembarking. It’s a kind of side effect from being stretched over timelines: the mind becomes too cognizant of how it exists in multiple places, multiple moments across time all at once. There’s part of her that’s still in the canon booth, resetting her tracker coordinates. There’s a part of her that’s still on a wind-whipped beach with tears stinging on her face, the smell of salt and humidity, long shadows and the low winter sun. There’s a part of her that’s still gripping a lever in Canary Wharf, straining with her whole body to remain upright against the gale force pull of the inevitable.
There’s a part of her that’s still in bed somewhere between 1953 and 2012 London, curled in humid, sweat-damp sheets with a know-it-all alien, tracking her fingers up the bumps of his spine while he breathes into her neck, remarkably less ashamed of himself, he’s telling her around a mouthful of lust and laughter, than he’s knows he’s supposed to be. There’s a part of her in the year five-billion-and-twenty-three with a headache and apple grass burrs in the cuffs of her trousers.
There’s a part of her with a metal room pulsing around her in time with her slamming heartbeat, her fingers tingling, teeth numb, everything entangled with golden smoke and the acrid taste of omnipotence on her tongue.
There’s a part of her in a department store basement in downtown London, holding a plastic bag of lottery money and being told to run by a northern stranger in a leather coat.
There’s a part of her still climbing on the back of a motorcycle of dubious ownership behind Jimmy Stone, pulling on a full-head helmet that makes her feel, deliciously, like she’s wearing a spacesuit.
There’s a part of her doing headstands in the park while her mother comforts Joannie from next door with her bruised ribs and black eye, Rose laughing aloud, oblivious, with blood rushed to her face in a world of her own where the sky is grass and the ground is made of stars.
And simultaneously, all of this feels close as yesterday and far enough away that they’re more like memories from a past life. The girl who lived those moments, did those things, she doesn’t exist anymore. Not the way she did. Long before anything, she was headed for this. Her trajectory was set long ago, and her whole life is just the parabola drawn by inertia, velocity, gravity. A flight path, like cannon fire. A bullet shot into the dark. Maybe she has no control at all.
From the obscured world that exists outside of her head, she tips precariously and falls, hands bound, temple-first, into the hard floor. In some part of her mind, she believes when she hits bottom, she’ll smash like a vase. Her head will burst open like a lightbulb under the heel of a boot. That she’ll fragment into a million-million pieces, one for every star going out in this galaxy with a few left over.
“She calmed down yet?”
“Yeah--quiet now. She’s a case, this one, thinks she’s some kind of superhero.”
“The darkness is going to swallow this world. All worlds. Very doomsday, this one, out to stop the apocalypse.”
“He says she’s dangerous.”
“Says that about most everything, doesn’t he?”
“Reckon he’s right about most everything in that regard.”
From somewhere behind the artificial darkness, a hand pats her shoulder-blade through her jacket, and her skin feels like it will slither free and crawl right off her bones. “Don’t worry now, Darling,” he laughs, the vowels drawn out and slippery with the kind of malintent that’s amorphous enough that she can’t quite decide if it resembles the sound of a bullet being cycled or a zipper pulling down.
There’s the sound of a closing door, and chairs scooting back over hard flooring. Both men, they’ve abruptly stood up.
“Where have you been?”
“What’s she doing on the floor? Get her up. Jesus.”
She doesn’t get a breath in before the experiment about waffle tape and eyelashes commences, and yields generally favorable results. There’s a piercing flood of light, and she slams her eyelids shut, generating a false red-tinted darkness of her own, a world where the floor and ceiling and atmosphere are limited to the confines of her own throbbing skull. Pain slides through one eyeball like a needle, burrowing into the soft pile of her brain. When she cracks open an eye finally, along with the two men, Captain Jack Harkness is furrowing his brow at her with one side of his mouth turned up in a kind of doomed smile. Like a man laughing over his own death.
“Well, this is a surprise,” Jack drawls. “I hadn’t expected anything for awhile. A month, two months? You seem to be off your mark.”
With a dry throat, Rose sniffs, bleary eyed and still jump sick; she doesn’t contemplate the possibility that This-Jack doesn’t correspond with her natural timeline. Still, all she can muster is, “Looking well, as always.”
He gives her that million-watt conman smile, a billboard of white teeth, crescent shaped eyes and no sentiment at all, cold as a marble mausoleum. “Well, that’s just one benefit of having your quantum signature smashed across probability space: it kind of disables the biological clock. Still, being an abomination comes with perks.”
She shakes her head slowly and there’s enough thick inertia to the motion she can imagine her skull is filled with some kind of sloshing liquid that carries its weight side to side, towing her with its gravity and threatening to drag her all the way to the floor.
“How comes you’re here?”
“Listen,” Jack Harkness says, lowering himself down into a kind of frog-like crouch, his familiar blue overcoat dipping against the polished concrete below. His sneer is something she wouldn’t have expected, this lack of geniality or, more than that, familiarity. “I don’t know who you think you’re fooling, but it offends me. And I’m not the most forgiving kind of guy, so be quick about it: tell me who you are and what you’re trying to do, and maybe I’ll think about letting you walk out of here alive.”
“Just so there’s no misunderstandings between us: Rose Tyler is dead. Maybe you thought I didn’t know, but I’ve seen the casualty roster from Canary Wharf. So let’s stop with the big glistening eyes.”
“You never found him again? Even with the vortex manipulator?”
Jack’s face pinches oddly, bitterness and conceit trying to make room in the same expression. “Afraid he’s not around to back your story up. He drowned. Six months back on Christmas Eve, night the Thames drained. Dropped the whole river on himself just to stop some two-bit space-nasty, but I’m thinking, you already knew that much.”
There’s a feeling like falling, something burning in her chest, just under her breastplate. She’s Torchwood, she’s a field agent, launching through time and space, immune to this kind of trauma by now, but the tears are coming anyway, big fat raindrop tears that fall comically down her face before she can stop them. She’s jump-sick, home-sick, then she heaves and she’s for-real sick right next to Jack’s polished shoes. She seethes, eyes screwed shut hard enough she’s creating her own flickering sky of stars behind her eyelids and it’s only a minute or so before there’s a bee-sting pain in her neck, and the sudden kind of vacant black she’d expect only to exist in the long dark distance between galaxies.
Somewhere in a the howling silence of a vast, subterranean space, she hears a voice. It’s days, weeks later--she doesn’t know. There’s no frame of reference, no windows, no sunlight. Her wrists, they’re belted down to a gurney, and she screams herself hoarse until the orderlies come to put a needle in her arm.
Maybe this was inevitable, getting herself locked up somewhere in this quest to build something, resurrect something in the obliterated place that is her world, where everything she used to be is simultaneously erased and inescapable.
After that, it’s pills in a paper cup, water that tastes like rust--both of them she holds in her mouth until she can spit. They’ve confiscated everything; the jump-disk might as well be light years away. When she speaks to herself, it’s just for the comfort of conversation.
“Am I going to lie here forever?”
And, recumbent and listless in the smothering dark, she hears a voice. It’s familiar enough her stomach wrenches within her with the intensity of the reaction it inspires, all her nerve endings humming at the echoing, amplified reply to her question.
What it says is: “Quite possibly.”
She strains against the bindings.
She calls out, frantic, her voice warbling. “Doctor?”
Immediately there are tears. She half-chokes on them, smiles deliriously around a mouthful of tangled syllables, all the hot-wet dripping backward along her temple and pooling in her ear canal before she’s able to call out again. “Wh-where are you?”
She blinks, brows squeezing down. There’s a pain sliding through her eyeball and into her brain, a kind of pressure like the barometer dropping rapidly. Does he mean a room number? Her mouth moves to form words, pursing together to ask him where room 38 is in relation to her own cell.
“People don’t understand time,” The Doctor explains, conversationally, amplified somewhere beyond her makeshift cell door like some kind of color commentator. “It isn’t what you think it is.”
“Doctor?” Her voice is a dry leaf, crumbling in the autumn wind of her breath.
The part of her that already suspected something amiss is still the same part that wants to howl.
It’s a recording. They’re playing a recording of the Doctor.
The next few sentences are drowned by the rush of blood in her head, the static sound of the metaphorical world ending all over again. How ridiculous, how pathetic that she’d hear a recording and be convinced he was there. That he could hear her.
“Well, I can hear you.”
Her heart jumps again, hits the ground running, another charge of tears releasing hot as blood down her temples. She opens her mouth to scream but the edges buckle and all she can manage is a whimper. “You can’t hear me.”
“Well, not hear you, exactly. But I know everything you’re going to say.”
Her shoulders jump under the weight of every silent sob she won’t give a voice. “How?”
“Look to your left.”
And, despite herself, she does, but there’s only darkness and the outline of light around her cell door. The recording cuts off, jumbles up in high-frequency jibberish while someone rewinds or fast-forwards while the feed is still playing, a high-pitched whir of the Doctor’s words that are not really meant for her. Her mouth has already pulled back in a frozen grimace around a mouthful of slow forming grief when the door opens, a retina-searing flood of light around a figure in a long coat that’s only a continued mockery.
Jack Harkness stands in the doorway with her jump disk in his palm, and then he’s by the bedside, pale, sweating, shaking it at her. “Tell me what this is,” he says. Then, “Rose!”
When he takes her to see the hand in a jar, it only takes her a minute to remember where he’d have gotten it. It’s a centerpiece in a mess of wires, oscillators reading molecular resonance, what Jack describes as a Doctor-Detector but looks more like Victor Frankenstein’s third-place science project.
(That hand of yours still gives me the creeps.)
We knew it was some kind of travel device,” Jack says, slipping the jump disk back into place among the Rube-Goldberg machine that, if the Doctor had built it, would probably rewrite history while toasting bread with its energy output. Instead, there’s another sort of jar, a kind of round beaker capped off and filled with a sort of fog and flashes of what looks like tiny, bottled lightning. He’s got a pocket torch pointed into it, laying across the desk where it lights up metal boxes and transistors, feedback loops and capacitors for energy storage, there’s the kind of harmonic Gunn diodes she recognizes from watching the work on the cannon module. Vacuum tubes and magnetrons, metal semiconductor field effect transistors, an array of two-port amplifiers to create a resonant circuit based on bioelectric signals from what appears to be--miraculously--living tissue. “We rigged it up to the cloud chamber, and the paramagnetic resonance was off the chart. We refined the limit cycle static down through the feedback loop to a simple electrical signal and recorded it on magnetic tape. And heres where it gets pretty wild.”
Jack plays back the video signal, and Rose can’t even think in the English language for a moment. They watch it twice through, without speaking. It is the Doctor--the proper Doctor--and Jack doesn’t recognize the woman that appears briefly either, nor does he have any idea what the Angels are, why or how they’d have the TARDIS, but more than anything, he tells her, he doesn’t understand how her device managed to reach through the void and receive a signal from their own linear past, London 1969, with a delta-signature from another timeline. Another universe.
He wants to know why her pistol is standard Torchwood issue. Not exactly garden variety.
He wants to know how she survived Canary Wharf.
He wants to know everything.
Instead of tears, there’s only a weary exhaustion and the perpetual squint of what might by now be a five-day headache. With a tremor in her hands, Rose asks if she might have a tea before explaining.
She begins with a deep breath, and what’s become her mantra: “The stars are going out.”
When she explains it, as best she can, Toshiko is quick to label the cannon’s technology as quantum teleportation. The other woman wipes at phantom tears and laughs almost nervously at the prospect, compulsively tucking her hair behind her ears every few minutes while she nods and listens, watches through her polished eyeglasses.
It’s a simple enough idea, she’s been told, but Rose can only explain bits of it. There are things she just doesn’t understand: the Pauli exclusion principle that makes it all work, emission directions, neutron stability, non-baryonic matter, beta decay, deterministic quantum gates. She can remember the vocabulary well enough, but not the definitions.
What she can explain is that it had all been built on her idea. There was a signal she’d received once, a broadcast from another universe that had required the power of a supernova to worm through a fissure in space and come out, inexplicably, on an overcast beach in Norway. Because signals aren’t matter themselves and only require it as a means of travel, her story had prompted her Torchwood to begin development on a technology based on her affirmation that signals could be sent between what they called alternate states.
The part she has memorized is this: they mathematically locate corresponding anti-fermions then calculate and map the spin-state of the particles onto the polarization of a photonic qubit, generating entanglement between the second set of particles and photons, then projecting the first matter state onto the second with what’s called a Bell-state measurement.
It’s not enough information to build the machine, it’s barely a child’s drawing schematic of the concept, barely enough to even make the process seem plausible. It’s still a fledgling technology, she’s quick to reiterate, inaccurate at best--a bit like trying to kill a spider with a hand grenade. She tries to think of all the excuses the Doctor used to give for landing in the wrong place, or wrong time. Galactic turn, planetary motion, orbital tilt, gravitational time dilation, every second of every year existing in a million-million different physical locations all in motion. None of them feel like they quite apply here. It’s a limitation of the technology, rather than simply the complexity of the calculations, whose complications present error. The cannon isn’t calibrated to any other physical coordinate stream outside of Earth; relative specifics of time and distance, she struggles to explain to a flustered Toshiko after their third cup of tea, aren’t the point.
What Rose still forgets sometimes is that no matter their brilliance, no one is going to pick up a single, half-formed thread of information and cat’s-cradle it into a working solution the way the Doctor can.
It’s three days of logarithms, Euler-LaGrange equations, hand drawn schematics and tea with Toshiko, then four more helping to rewire the original circuit to route signals through the activated disk before Jack decides it’s time for a test-run. Tosh is certain of at least one thing: if they could use the receiver disk to detect this kind of signal, and if Rose can contact her Torchwood for cannon-launch coordinates, they should be able to use the same frequency markers to send the same type of information through the cracks in the walls. It requires significantly less energy to send a recorded signal versus an interactive one. They won’t need to burn up a sun, merely drain the Greater Cardiff power grid for 42 seconds.
That is, because Jack wants to use the hand’s biosignature to send a signal to call out to the Doctor. Any Doctor, every Doctor. He wants to send a video broadcast, starring the one and only Rose Tyler. They set up a camera, and Rose calls out his name a few times while they record it. Her face broadcast across the void, calling out “Doctor!” when she’s been instructed not to even give anyone her name at the risk of jeopardizing casual nexii and the like, but a face and a name aren’t the same thing, and neither encompasses the identity. That’s something else she’s learned from experience.
The maths check out, but the signal splits on send. There’s something impeding it, distorting it, generating ground loop interference. Tosh’s GUI read out’s gone strange; the signal goes out, but the direction is skewed like light through a refractor. Into the past, the future, it’s all looping back at her, and the interface illustrates the primary field like an orb-shaped spider web with a white hot center. Not even the jump cannon can reach beyond the walls of this universe now; even the signals are distorted, looping back into the catch-all trap. Something in the middle of this universe is bending everything around it, electric signals, space, the weak nuclear force, cause and effect, even cyclic time the way nothing can, not even Rose Tyler who has stood on a different resonance of this same Earth and been its sole inhabitant. Little Red Riding Hood all alone in the dark wood, saturated with anti-material background radiation, though some days she feels like the wolf. After all, Torchwood, she’s come to understand, would have never existed without a wolf.
This particular universe has an event horizon, a kind of point of no return, and she’s learned about black holes before. She’s watched the last passing of the Scarlet System swallowed by a behemoth in space with time frozen at its rim. It’s gravity that does that; the Doctor had told her everything, and it’s a surprise even to her, but she’d been listening.
They do an area sweep for gravitational anomalies, a signature of manifested multi-condensed bosons, a by-product of high energy and transactional interpretation. The strongest reading is at the junction of Little Ealing and the Chiswick Highroad, 10:01 AM, June 25th, 2007, a full year before the stars start going out. After that point, the readings are paired, two separate energy signatures occupying a single point in space. One of them is named Donna Noble. The other, they can’t seem to work out.
It’s nine more days before Rose Tyler, nameless again, is sitting on a park bench watching the sky burn while Donna Noble gapes, barefaced in her tattered sweater, desolate and exhausted. The sound it makes, like a blast of static, makes her think of the jump cannon, that static sound, the pain behind the globe of her right eye. She’s begun to hate that sound.
None of this should have happened. By now, it’s a new maxim, a catchphrase, a bridge to go with her repeating chorus. The stars are going out. None of this should have happened.
“That was the Torchwood team. Gwen Cooper, Ianto Jones, they gave their lives. And Captain Jack Harkness was transported to the Sontaran home world. There’s no one left.”
And she’s right. There’s not. Even the Doctor is dead. She’s been back and forth the last twenty-four hours, three weeks ahead, five weeks back, chasing the anomaly that pinches this universe off from the rest but it’s like chasing a flash of light, a scent of smoke, a shadow in the distance, the sound of voices at night: obscure and everywhere, too difficult to pinpoint. She’s seen him wheeled on a covered gurney, she’s watched Donna’s life and the entire world around her upended by alien interference. Just another obliterated universe centered around one lost woman.
These events are things she’s already seen resolved in other timelines, read over in mission dossiers, here all spelled out to absolute devastation, at least as long as this deviant-universe exists. She tries not to think of it as genocide, ending these people’s existence because their reality is an anomaly. She supposes, in light of what she’d done to the Daleks, that it wouldn’t be her first.
“You’re always wearing the same clothes. Why won’t you tell me your name?”
“None of this was meant to happen,” she tells her; avoidance of direct questions is an art, like anything else. She’s studied at the knee of masters. “There was a man, this wonderful man, and he stopped it. The Titanic, the Adipose, the ATMOS, he stopped them all from happening.”
Donna’s eyes are rimmed red, bloodshot from nights without decent sleep on a kitchen floor. When she blinks, it's with a kind of effort that might move a continent. “That Doctor?”
“You knew him.”
“Did I? When?”
“I think you dream about him, sometimes,” she says, and almost entirely isn’t talking about herself.
Standing at the barricade, clutching it, she watches what’s now the eighth version of the Adipose event’s aftermath in as half as many hours. In one, Donna Noble fell to her death from a BMU gondola that’d had its cables severed. In another, she simply disappeared, presumably dissolved into a pile of Adiposian newborns upon discovery. In the anomalous version of the same day she hadn’t been here at all, the Noble family having been sequestered in a residence with four other families in Leeds, refugees from the nuclear fallout quarantine of the greater London area. She’s come to the conclusion: if the only choices here are that Donna Noble lives or Donna Noble dies, nothing that happens in this event could retroactively affect her ability to be under the Thames on Christmas Eve 2006. The anomaly-universe has left no traces. It’s gone, vanished more completely than a burned planet. She tries not to feel one way or the other about that.
We were too busy saving ourselves, she once said, five billion years from now. No one even saw it go.
Time, they tell her, is deterministic. Casual events reach forward and backward into their own nexus, origin-points notwithstanding. She’s gone so far back on her own already, searching for the edges of the timelines but not entirely without her own nostalgic motives. It wasn’t four hours ago she was in Cardiff, standing outside a cafe in sunlight that felt a little artificial on her shoulders, like she was somehow removed from it. She looked into a cafe window and watched herself cradling her face in curled hands, listening to Captain Jack Harkness--a Jack from before the schism, not the one with whom she’d spent the last few weeks--telling a story. She watched the Doctor, back before his change, when he had blue eyes and a voice that could harden to ice--that Doctor she’d once been so sure she’d never see again--she’d watched him grin and laugh when Mickey, seemingly so young and trying so hard, finished the punchline in Jack’s place.
(I knew we should have turned left!)
Well. Mickey didn’t know it, but he was right.
“Listen!” a voice from behind her punches through the memory, and by the time she turns Donna Noble is already fast approaching, and she’s absolutely glowing. “There’s this woman that’s going to come along–tall, blonde woman called Sylvia.” She turns to look, then point. “Tell her, ‘that bin there.’ Alright? It’ll make sense. ‘That bin there.’”
With a bright smile, maybe the happiest she’s ever seen Donna look, she turns to go, off with the Doctor. She knows this, because Donna knows this, and Rose has been here before. She’s learned too much, come too far to fling herself after Donna in desperation--this too-early version of Donna Noble who hasn’t yet travelled with the Doctor. She is missing the key cross junctions of experience that branch into her proper timelines. The ones that lead to the Doctor. Her Doctor.
The Erstwhile Rose Tyler is a variable in this version of events. If she shows up now, turns that corner and runs down the still-wet street into his shocked arms, the nexus will warp. Donna never travels with the Doctor alone, she doesn’t become the Donna who makes the decisions that bring her to Shan Shen. Donna’s timelines skew. Her readouts go haywire, and her timeline never coincides with the event where her impetus is, for whatever reason, crucial. The cannon can’t take Rose further into the future beyond her own physically resonant spacetime coordinate--Pete’s World tracking three dilated years ahead of her natural prime. She doesn’t know what the future holds beyond the inclination of doom.
You think it’ll last forever. People and cars and concrete. But it won’t.
So Rose doesn’t spoil Donna’s happiness by telling her she’ll be long gone before Sylvia comes for the car keys. It’s the same way she didn’t tell that Now-Gone-Donna that what she’d been through in that parallel world still meant something even if none of it, she’d said, had been meant to happen.
But there is nothing that’s meant to happen, only preferable outcomes. The universe is apathetic. It has no opinions, no sympathy, only silence and cacophony, stillness and motion, dark and light. Absolutes.
For show, she offers a bland smile for anyone who might be watching, or an almost smile, whatever it is she can manage; whatever that looks like anymore. She smiles however she can smile and ignores it, the twisting feeling, the sensation of her intestines in knots at the certainty that he’s just here, just around the corner, and if she runs to him now, runs to him and buries her face and fights tears at his utter bewildered, tongue-tied joy, this will have all been for nothing. All her weeks, months of work will unravel in a millisecond. Every moment is so fragile, a castle built on wet sand. A soap bubble.
The universe, after all, cannot compute sympathy.
This only looks like patience. It’s a squirming, wet conviction that’s difficult to hold onto, like keeping a grip on a fish. It’s less a virtue than the ingrained necessity of paranoia, like an animal wary of electric shock. They say a cat once bitten by a snake fears even rope.
If there’s anything that she’s learned, it’s that there are always constants. Constants, variables, the sound of static. But today the sky feels made of grass instead of stars, everything turned upside down again like when she was a child doing headstands in the park, when she was still dreaming of the life ahead of her like it could hold anything she wanted instead of it existing ahead of her, fully formed, just waiting for her to catch up. Like she still is, somewhere, forever existing in those moments she’s already lived. And it could be that she’s just following her own personal trajectory, a bullet shot at the moment of her birth, ricocheting off every moment and event and interaction she’s ever been a part of. Her whole life, just a parabola drawn by inertia, by laws of nature, by the indefatigable towline of interacting forces.
But, some days, she prefers to think she’s the gun and not the bullet.
Today, she’s the gun.