It had been a long time since anyone in Carthage had eaten well. When a city begins to starve, everything goes: the bad food as quick as the good; the animals along with the grass. Even the most important people were thinning down to bones, and there were more bones piling in the streets than anyone had strength left to count.
Chris couldn’t see any of this as she stood in the door of the TARDIS. The Doctor was talking excitedly to her as she blocked her entire view, hands waving wildly so Chris couldn’t see past her sides.
“Stop talking,” she said to the Doctor wearily. “I haven’t been listening for ages.”
“But I’m just getting started! We’ve the whole top fifty to go. Like I was saying, the thirty-fourth most surprising fact about mushrooms is”–
“Why are you talking about mushrooms?”said Chris. “Are we on a mushroom planet?”
“We are! We’re on the Earth. There’s loads of mushrooms lying about here.”
Chris sighed. “Why aren’t you letting me look at the Earth? I see it all the time. Is everyone dead?”
“Not quite,” said the Doctor. “Not yet. But what’s happening to them?” She winced. “It’s pretty unpleasant.”
“I can handle it.”
“You won’t know that ‘till you’ve seen it, and once you have there’ll be no taking it back. I’m not about to use my memory scourer on a child.”
Chris gave her the withering stare a child can use to win an argument.
“I’ll be fine”, she said.
The Doctor sighed. “Okay,” she said. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Hesitantly she drew away, and Chris instantly knew she should have listened to her. The people in the city reminded her of when she’d seen her great grandfather at the hospice– when she was younger, but old enough to know that he didn’t have long. When she’d seen him, she’d been terrified at how thin his skin had seemed: like someone had wrapped a skeleton in tracing paper and pretended it was someone she knew. But everyone was like that here, the children as much as the adults. They were bones held together by the smallest amount of life, and Chris could see the starvation in their eyes.
“Did aliens do this?” she said quietly.
“It’s much worse than that,” said the Doctor as she shook her head. “People did. That’s why I didn’t want you to see.”
She took a deep breath.
“Carthage has held out for a long time now,” she said, “but the story goes back even further. A while ago the Romans”–
“The Romans?” said Chris. “But we’ve already been to them. And they weren’t all sick and hungry like everyone here.”
“That was completely different. These people aren’t Roman at all; it’s the Romans who did this to them.”
Chris crossed her arms. “You can go anywhere. It’s still the same.”
“No, it is different,” said the Doctor again. “Hundreds of years away, and a whole other continent!”
“It’s still Romans again,” said Chris. “But it’s even more horrible than before.”
“That’s no way to think about things,” said the Doctor. “It’s 146 BC! Ages before last time. As far away from our holiday as World War Two is to you. You can’t just lump all that time together and put it in a box labelled ‘Romans.’”
“Yes you can,” said Chris. “When there’s lots of places we haven’t been. Like the Shwedagon Pagoda.”
The Doctor frowned. “That’s a very specific example to use–“
She had more to say, but was interrupted by a frighteningly cheerful voice.“A Police Box thousands of years too early?” it from some way away. “That’s what I like to see! Doctor! It’s me! And I’m a woman! With breasts!”
“Oh God,” said the Doctor. “Oh no. Maybe you’re right, Chris; lots of different history to explore! That place you just mentioned, all the other bits. Let’s get away from here as fast as we possibly–“
A frizzy haired woman ran up to the TARDIS and grinned, before her face fell as she saw who the Doctor was now.
“Oh,” she said, “you’re also–“
The strange woman pouted. “Well. That’s no fun.”
“It’s not about fun,” the Doctor shrugged. “It’s just who I am. This is Chris,” she added. “She’s my friend; she isn’t very old. Please don’t go starting to swear.”
Chris looked up at the woman who was worryingly like the Doctor. You could tell she was an alien in exactly the same way, as if someone had mentioned a fact that you’d always known. She was taller and dressed more eccentrically, with a plastic teal coat that reminded Chris of a bin liner. But she still had that grin that would mark out a runaway Time Lord, youthful and innocent in a way that could burn down a world. Chris thought about what the Doctor might be like if she hadn’t decided to be good, and remembered how it could be wise to be afraid.
“Do you have a medical degree?” she asked the stranger.
“No,” they said, “at least, not any more. Get my left and right confused, and when you’re a surgeon, well–“ she winced, then turned the wince to a grin.
“Oh. It’s just that you’re very like the Doctor”–
“She’s nothing like me,” muttered the Doctor. “She calls herself the Monk.”
“You get female monks,” said the Monk defensively.
“In Buddhism,” said Chris, who’d done it in school.
“The Monk and me go way back,” said the Doctor. “I’ve known her since I was almost as young as you. We’re–“
“Friends,” said the Monk.
“Enemies,” finished the Doctor.
“Frenemies,” said the Monk, “if you’re going to be like that. Though I’ve got more reason to hate you than you do me. Still, water under the bridge, eh?” She grinned. “You can’t change history.”
“She’s making a joke there, the Monk,” said the Doctor. “‘Cause changing history’s what she likes to do. No matter how delicate and fraught the web of time, she’ll always find a way to drive a fist right through it. And that’s why you’re here,” she said as realisation dawned. “Oh, God. That’s why you’re here.”
“Still feeling sharp in your old age,” said the Monk without affection.
“We’re very early in this species’ history,” said the Doctor. “It could have billions of years still to go. The timeline’s already fraying, and I’ll bet you want to blast it with a flamethrower.”
“I do. And what’s so wrong about that?”
“It’s wildly irresponsible.”
“That’s top Doctor, that is. You’re doing the hits.”
The Monk put on a high pitched voice that sounded nothing like her friend.
“Look at me, I’m the Doctor!” she squealed, “I’m mad and cool and I’m terribly rebellious. And I always break the rules, except for that one that I just can’t be breaking at all! And that one, and this one, and this jolly awful one that says that you have to die. Oh well, nothing to be done! Spit-spot; wouldn’t be proper. You can’t change history!” She laughed. “A hundred percent rebel Time Lord? My arse!”
“The Doctor doesn’t speak like that,” said Chris.
“Every Time Lord does,” said the Monk, “once you’ve heard enough to recognise it.”
“You do have rules,” Chris said to the Doctor. “Like with those lizard people we met. You wouldn’t save them, although you could’ve done. You wouldn’t even tell them that you could.”
“That’s our Doctor,” said the Monk. “And if I was feeling naughty, I could let you into a secret”–
“Okay,” said the Doctor. “I think you’d better wait in the TARDIS, Chris. Me and the Monk might have to have a word”–
“She’s not going to save these people either,” said the Monk. “She’s going to let everyone die.”
Chris looked at her friend in horror. “What?!” she said.
The Doctor looked down at her feet.
“Well,” she said after a while. “This is great, isn’t it? We’re having lots of fun in Carthage.”
She gave a sigh that was more like a growl.
“Reunions,” she said with a snarl. “You always know they’ll be awful, don’t you?”
She looked up at the Monk with contempt.
“So it’s funny,” she said, “when they’re still worse than you ever imagine.”