“You’re stupid!” Chris was saying in Thresu’s mind. The Doctor had suggested they deserved a treat after everything they’d been through with the Kilderkin, and had given him some food that wouldn’t be invented for a while. He chewed on the unnaturally soft and sweet thing as they made their way to where the whale must be, and tried very hard to forget the trials of his day.
But it turned out the voice in his head wanted to fight him as soon as they’d finished with the grape, berating him for not just running away.
“We’d take you!” it was saying. “We’ve got a special machine! Nobody would find you; no one would know. You’d have a whole new life as something that wasn’t a slave.”
“But I’d know,” he said with his mind. “It’d follow me everywhere, just like you’re doing now. A high, annoying voice that would always be stuck in my head. It’d always judge me, and I’d know it was always right.”
“She’s right, you know,” said the Doctor.
Thresu looked horrified. “You’re in my head, as well? There’s a lot in there I’d rather that nobody saw!”
“Oh, I’ve seen worse, all the minds I’ve rummaged around in. But I’ve no interest in going into yours. I’ve all of time and space to explore! There’s bigger monsters there than in your mind.”
“I know what she’s saying,” said the Doctor, “because I should be saying it too. You don’t need to be here, not now. You absolutely could get away. You wouldn’t have to leave Rome, even. There’s a thing I can do, though I shouldn’t do it often. Change you just a bit, so you can’t be recognised anymore. A face that’s not quite the one of the person who ran away. I never even asked your name, you know,” she said, “so I couldn’t even tell if you chose yourself a new one.”
Thresu shook his head. “I’d still be running away from what the Republic is. Our roles; they’re how we show each other the merit we have as men. It’s not enough to slip away from them, even if we’re never caught. If we did, how would we know how much anyone was really worth?”
“I think everyone’s worth the same. That’s why I’ve come so far, to save the creature down there.”
She nodded down to the bottom of the valley where they’d arrived. The salt whale lay there oblivious to the world; pink-white and larger than anything that lived on the Earth. It was angular and jagged, but somehow animal-like as well: like a sculptor had tried to carve a thing from a sailor’s story.
But then people were carving at the whale itself, hacking away with scythes and knives. It had been in pain so long that it had given up on roaring: now it just sat there, waiting for the end to come. But a Salineoptera could withstand a lot, and the Doctor knew it would be some time before this one would die.
As she looked at the men and women chipping away at the creature, suddenly the Doctor saw things through different eyes, harsh and grey below eyebrows she no longer had. The people were monsters, who should have known better. The creature was an innocent, another victim of the human race. There were no nuances to it, no complexity. No starving children at home or families judging you for destitution. There were only the people who were evil and the whale who was very good, and the eyes that were watching who got to decide which was which.
But then that sort of judgement was what the Doctor was. To think anything else would go against what she’d been for a very long time indeed. But Rome’s Republic had lasted for a very long time as well, and that wouldn’t mean anything when it fell.
In her memory she was an old man looking down at the Earth, at all its people screaming to be saved. She was turning away from all of them to save a single creature, and she’d known as she did it she was very, very wise…
...it had always been more difficult than they knew, to be the Doctor. And it didn’t seem fair, in that second, that it now had to get harder still.
“She was right, y’know,” sighed the Doctor. “Not enough to be a lady, if you’re still going to act like a lord. And I don’t think she’d have put it like that, and in a way that proves my point.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Thresu.
“I’m saying we need to use our imaginations,” said the Doctor. “And think about how our world could be. A world where you matter, as much as anyone else. Whether they’re a citizen or a slave. Where you matter even if you do something,” she sighed, “like refuse to rescue a salt whale. To put it out of its misery, and let the people sell on its remains.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” said Thresu. “It’d be barbaric!”
“But I’m a barbarian!” laughed the Doctor. “Full of odd customs and from very far away. But people and monsters, Romans and barbarians.” She shrugged. “Sometimes, you need to see things in a different way. Killing a whale, you know, next to a whole society selling people. It’s not a comparable thing. But to rebel against what everyone believes, even when it’s monstrous”– she shook her head. “I know just how hard that can be.”
She looked at him, like she was trying to see the person stuck into the body.
“What’s your name?” she asked him.
“Thresu,” he said, and she smiled with the whole of her face.
“You know,” she said, “I had no idea if you were going to tell the truth.”
“You’ve been honest to me.”
“Then have a good life, Thresu. Try not to kill any whales. Or people. And maybe brace up for a rocky few decades. It’s not just the salt, that’s going to end up dead.”
Thresu looked at her, thinking of everything she’d said and everything he’d seen. The world was very big, was the point of being a slave to the mysteries. Perhaps it was big enough, that he didn’t have to be one any more.
“Do it,” he said. “Make me a new man.”
“Not quite,” she said, smiling as her hand began to glow. “It’s just a new face. There’s so much in us, isn’t there, that never really changes at all?”
It was, she reflected as she bought her hand to his head, exactly the wrong thing to say before going to kill off a whale.