Jack gazed out at the absolute nothing beyond the police box doors. An empty dimension, the Doctor had said. Not an atom in it. The TARDIS is the first matter, and we’re the first beings to see it. Though “see” was a relative term here. No matter meant nothing to reflect the dim blue light that spilled from the doors back to his eyes. The feeble photons would disperse, travelling forever toward the non-existent edges of the limitless void. This was true blackness, the absence of light.
There was nothing to see, but Jack couldn’t tear his eyes from it. For all he’d seen in his travels across time and space, he couldn’t fully comprehend the flat nothing that filled his vision and it fascinated him. Yet he couldn’t allow the Doctor to think he couldn’t handle this.
“Lovely vacation spot. You really know how to a treat a guy, don’t you?” he called over his shoulder.
“It’s just one of many, and they all look the same.” The Doctor came up beside him and stuck her head out of the door to see if she could discern just what it was that Jack saw in this place. “It’s amazing how many of these spaces there are, just sitting there, no one to enjoy them. I don’t see how this one’s different, but if you like it, that’s good.”
Jack took a step back from the threshold and eyed her, biting back his laughter.
Puzzled by his silence, the Doctor looked up at him. “Oh,” she murmured. “Oh! Yes. No. Sorry. I don’t get it, me.” She pointed at her ear. “Words come in and whoop! Right into the void, just like that one out there.”
That cheeky grin was certainly the same, whether it wore a leather pea coat, a brown duster, or a sky-blue trench, and Jack couldn’t help smiling back. “You haven’t changed, not one bit.”
The Doctor snapped back to dead serious and peered out at the darkness. “What do you think? Not a bad place. Do you think you’ll like it here?”
Jack didn’t want to think about it. Turning on his heel, he strode to the console and circled it until he found the pedal on the floor. Toeing it with his boot, he caught the custard cream as it slid down the chute and took a bite. “I see you’ve had work done on the old girl.”
“Saves me a trip to the kitchen when I’m peckish.” She closed the doors and leant back against them. “You’re ignoring my question.”
“You’re very observant.” Frowning, Jack shifted to the other foot and shook the half-biscuit at the Doctor before tossing it in his mouth. “There’s got to be another option.”
“There’s always another option, Jack. But you know what it is, and you’ve always thought it was far worse.”
Jack closed his eyes against the memories. Time had brought him friends and lovers, amazing adventure, great accomplishment, but also much loss and pain, and he had long been weary of it. “It certainly has been so far.”
“And it’s only been a couple of centuries. Imagine millennia. Millions of years. Billions. And one day, the end of the universe will come and you’ll be there.”
“I’ve imagined it. A lot. I don’t like it.” He shook his head, mostly to hide from the Doctor the sudden fear that ballooned in his chest. “There’s got to be another way.”
“There isn’t.” Pushing off the doors, the Doctor walked up to Jack. “Like I told you before, you’re a fact. You are. There’s only one thing that is like you are, so you can go continue being like you have been, or you can take the next step. It’s up to you, really.”
Jack sighed. There really wasn’t any other choice. The only reason he’d agreed to come here was that he knew he had to.
“Might as well get it over with.”
He strode over to the tall steel case that stood to the right of the craft’s doors. Built on casters, it sported a small control panel on the side and two thick cables that snaked across the floor and ended near the TARDIS’ main console. Wringing her hands, the Doctor scooted around him and tapped a few blinking buttons. With a metallic swoosh, the front swung open, revealing a hollow chamber just big enough for Jack to stand up straight inside, mercifully lined with some kind of pale blue flannel to prevent it from being cold to the touch.
Jack took a deep breath, then straightened the collar of his coat, as much out of habit as to delay this final step. It surprised him how much comfort he gleaned from the idea that the coat would be with him to the end. It wasn’t the original, or even one of the first ten copies he’d worn, but it had been his constant companion through everything.
He placed a foot on the threshold of the chamber, then turned back to the Doctor. “Will it hurt?” he murmured as he obsessively rubbed at his hands.
She shrugged. “No more than any other time you’ve died, I expect. So, yes.”
“Silly question,” he remarked with a wistful chuckle.
“And then it’ll be done. At least, I think it will. It’s not like I’ve had any experience in the matter myself.”
“You and me both.” Jack hopped backward into the chamber. “All right. Hook me up.”
The Doctor nodded. Dashing to the console, she pressed a few buttons, then stepped back to watch a small hatch open at her feet. Grabbing the ends of the two cables, she plopped on her stomach and fed the cables into the opening. “Hair... of the wolf... that bit ya,” she grunted as she struggled to attach them to something Jack couldn’t see. “Ha! Don’t know how many times I’ve made that joke.” She jumped up and dusted herself off. “Fix you right up.”
Jack frowned. He’d expected the process would be more involved, with big whirring machines and lots of swirling golden energy. “Is that it?”
“That’s all it takes.”
“Who’d thought it’d be so simple? Okay.” He stepped back and braced himself against the walls of the container. “I’m ready.”
The Doctor smiled. “Farewell, Jack.”
“See ya ‘round, Doc.” He snapped her a military salute.
The Doctor closed the door and tapped the panel to secure the latch. Then, throwing her weight against it, she pushed the chamber out of the TARDIS door. The steel mass floated off. Trotting to the console, the Doctor pulled a lever, and the two cables began first to shiver, then glow with a golden shimmer. She watched the slowly retreating silver box, as the cables straightened, then threw a toggle just before they went taut. The cables whipped out into the void, and she sprinted to slam the doors after them.
“Nine… eight...seven...” she murmured as she leapt back to the console and threw the lever to send the TARDIS into the time vortex. She braced herself out of habit: if she’d been caught in the explosion, there would not have been time to notice that the craft had been disintegrated. “You’d think by now I’d have an automated system to do this,” she cried out to the dome above.
Planting her feet as the craft’s tremors subsided, she chanted to herself as she punched buttons on the console. “Year five hundred thousand, J.R.” She checked the monitor to confirm the landing and tapped the screen in approval. “Dead on. Brilliant as always, old girl.” She trotted off toward the door, murmuring, “J.R. Jack Reckoning. I like it. Remember that one.”
The Doctor’s eyes lit with soft pride as she took in the new universe. ‘New’ in many ways: created by her hand (and a bit of help, of course); infant stars emerging from primordial plasma, just starting to shine; mass and energy where none had existed before, born from her friend’s temporal certainty; observed and cherished for the first time. She’d always said that she travelled to see things she’d never seen before, but she never meant it quite like this.
She raised two fingers to her brow in a last salute to her friend, then toed the doors closed and whirled back to the console. “Back home now,” she urged. She threw the launch toggle and hung on as the the craft tumbled through the dimensions. As soon as the TARDIS materialised on firm ground, she trotted out into a wide, dark laboratory where a lone figure sat in an oversized metal throne in a clear crystalline chamber. On his head sat a crown bristling with tubes and wires that ran through sealed valves in the clear windows to different hulking devices scattered about the room. He seemed asleep, slumped against the high side of the chair, but at the squeak of the hinges, his bright eyes had opened, and his lips curved in a cheeky grin.
“I knew you’d be back, Doc. Not a single person who’s left me tied up like this has ever failed to return for more,” Jack quipped, his voice muffled.
“Far be it from me to break your streak.” Opening the door, she walked up and began disconnecting the cables from the device on his head.
“How did it go?”
“Same as ever,” she replied, the distraction of her work encouraging her flood of words. “It’s fascinating, really, watching these new universes being born. They’re all different in subtle ways. You know, I could make a case that it all depends on your mood when I flip the switch. You were pretty melancholy and reluctant, more so than normal, and that seems to always produce a predominance of yellow early-form stars and refractory nebulae. Think of the superstructures we could get if you were perfectly happy.”
Though he kept his head still to ease her task, Jack’s eyes followed her hands even as she moved to detach the tubes in the back. “The fragment didn’t want to go, then, huh?”
“He didn’t think it was a good idea, no. An early one, he was. Thought Donna was still with me. The early ones never like it.” She paused and leant into his field of vision. “You know, it really would be a lot easier if I could explain to them what’s really going on.”
“No.” Jack’s emphatic word was final, and the Doctor shrugged and returned to her work. “I know myself pretty well and I can safely say that I wouldn’t cotton to the idea that I was just one of a million mes, dying just so that the big me can siphon off a bit of temporal energy. I could think of far better things a million mes could do together.”
“Yes, I’m sure the ideas are just swarming in that noggin of yours.” She pulled the metal band off and rapped him twice on the skull.
“Always up for new adventures,” Jack mumbled as he pushed himself to his feet and strode out of the chamber. Finally free, his first thought was to grab his coat, which was draped over the back of the chair by the lab bench, and shrug it on. He then meandered over to check his hair in the polished side panels of one of the machines.
“I’ve been meaning to ask, Doc,” he called as he smoothed down an errant lock, “I’ve been noticing changes. Nothing big, but I thought I should check. Is that normal?”
“You ask like you think I should know,” she laughed. She began bundling up the cabling and storing it away. “I’ve never done anything like this before, Jack. I’m learning as we go along, just like you.”
“I hoped you’d know. It’s a bit disturbing, you know, seeing changes.” He turned his head this way and that, inspecting every inch of his reflection. “I expected I’d start getting older after a while, after a long while. Wrinkles here, grey hairs there, that kind of thing. I didn’t expect this.”
“Could be my imagination, really. My mouth’s a bit wider. This dimple in my chin’s a bit shallower. That kind of thing.”
Stowing away the coil she’d been working on, the Doctor strode over and studied Jack’s face. “I don’t see it myself. But it’s only natural. You’ve lost your absolute certainty. Each fragment takes away a bit of your verity each time, just a teensy amount. So now you’ve just got time, and it’s starting to show.”
Jack squeezed the point of his chin, playing at forcing his dimple to deepen. “People don’t change like this.”
“Oh, yes, they do. You just don’t see it ‘cause humans don’t live very long and the aging overshadows it. Everyone changes. They grow and transform. They evolve and devolve. You just have the time to see it happen, and I think you’ll find over the millennia that you’ll change more than you expect.” Letting that statement hang in the air for a moment, she eyed Jack with a significant stare, then went off on a distracted tangent.
“Thing is…” and she spun back to the lab desk to check the readings on the monitor, “I didn’t think you’d notice anything this quickly. You’re progressing faster than I thought. We’ve done enough of these that I have some data points to work with, and you’re about twelve percent further along than my best projection. I thought we’d get your lifetime down to a bit under a billion, but results like this, maybe we can pull that estimate down to maybe half a billion. Maybe less as we refine the process.”
Jack smirked. He sidled up next to her and spun in place, settling back against the desk and crossing his arms across his chest. “To be honest, Doc, you’ve missed a few appointments, but you came back to make up for them.”
Jerking back in surprise, the Doctor studied Jack’s smug expression to discern if he was being truthful. “Have I? Future me?”
“A couple of you.” He winked. “And might I say, looking good, ma’am.”
“Well, that’s only to be expected.” She wagged a finger at him. “The future me part. Not the looking good part. Though it applies there, too, I suppose. But this is a significant project. An attempt at fixing something that should never have happened. So I’d like to think I’d make sure to make up my appointments.”
“No complaints from me. Next time, then?”
“Yeah. When the TARDIS is ready. She’s recovering from the effort faster each time.” The Doctor fiddled idly with a dial. “You know, Jack, I really should’ve said this sooner, but -“
Jack held up a hand to stop her. “Don’t. I already know.”
“Well.” The Doctor flashed him a bright grin, then held out a hand to usher him to the TARDIS. “Where shall I drop you?”
Pushing off the bench, Jack sauntered toward the box. “Back where you found me. I’ve got some unfinished business there.”
“That describes half the galaxy,” she replied as she passed him and unlocked the door, holding it open for him. “But I’ll get you back right quick. Though I expect you won’t mind if it takes a couple of tries.”
“I’m counting on it,” he winked, and he stepped into the blue box, the Doctor right behind him.