Together the Doctor and Chris had walked deeper down through the High Dalek, through its strange gardens lit by an unreal sky. These were what it had grown as a last line of defence, when all of its other weapons were broken and gone. The gardens were beautiful to remind people of everything they were leaving behind, each thing life had that their death would not. Lighthouses, bats, the smell of wood. Eating too much carrot and finding you’d no room to breathe. All of life was reflected somewhere in its beauty. The two of them held hands tightly when they walked by.
They were alone, now, in the shadow of the last elder tree. The garden had fallen away so there was only the darkness and them. They stood there for a while, Chris and the Doctor, looking down the hole that led to the centre of the world.
“It’s a long way,” said Chris, who’d been thinking that all this time. “Won’t it take years to get there? Won’t gravity crush us?”
Her voice echoed softly against the sheer nothingness beyond.
“Space and time’re bunched up this close to the centre,” said the Doctor. “We’ll be there before we know it, maybe literally. Then after that we might both know nothing at all.”
“Perhaps it was enough,” said Chris. “Everything you did; the work of all those people.”
“Perhaps,” said the Doctor. “Although”–
She paused, staring on into the blankness.
“You trailed off,” said Chris.
“I was just thinking,” said the Doctor. “There’s so many others that still have a part to play.”
The dark of the hole was like a starless void, and the Doctor knew that it was now finally time.
“You can stop holding that thought now,” she said.
“What?” said Chris.
“Back in your house, when I told you about the reality bomb. You were going to say that you didn’t think it could work.”
“Oh,” said Chris. “Well, I just thought. If there were lots of different worlds, and there were reality bombs in them all. If we stopped it here it might not matter, because there’d be another me and you who would both fail. And then we’d still die from that bomb, because it destroyed all the realities. One would always kill everyone, in the end.”
“That’s right,” said the Doctor, “but it’s also completely wrong.”
“I thought it was clever,” said Chris.
“And it is! That’s how it would work out, if all the universes worked that way. It’s just not how things are, in the end.”
She looked down into the hole that stretched down into the world, a blackness that almost seemed bigger than the darkness it was built to create.
“There’s one world, out there that we can’t get to,” she said. “And the rest of us all depend on it, so we can keep living our lives. Not one with monsters, or aliens, or a Doctor– but one that all those things need, if they’re to have any meaning at all. And when that world begins to wobble, well. That’s when you can build a reality bomb.”
Chris frowned. “Then the bomb is only here?”
“No!” said the Doctor. “It’s there as well. The fighting it here and there, they’re the same thing in a way. We need to fight as hard as we can; ‘cause it’s the only way we can beat it. But something as big as a reality bomb… I don’t think we can do it alone.”
The Doctor looked at her child companion, and bit her lip.
“There’s something I haven’t told you,” she said. “It’s pretty big.”
Chris looked at her. “A bad thing?” she said.
The Doctor laughed. “The opposite! The best thing! But... you might not see it that way. In that reality, they know about the Doctor. And she’s a bit like me, and she looks like me. But she isn’t me at all, not really. The rest of us, we’re all in that Doctor’s shadow.”
“The rest of you?” said Chris.
“Yes, all of us! Every Doctor anyone ever dreamed. When they needed her to say something, or to be there so that they could be strong. All of us are out there doing something, whatever we look like and whatever we say. The Doctor’s a story that can save someone,” she said, “even if it’s only one person that hears. But we all happened because of a story too, and that story happened because of her.”
“I don’t know why you’re telling me this,” said Chris.
“Because we’re standing in front of the end of the world,” said the Doctor. “And I wanted to tell you the truth. Because I kept so much from so many, and I thought that was a way of giving safety. But lying always wrong, isn’t it? Especially to a child.”
“To a friend.” said Chris.
“Yes,” said the Doctor. “To that.”
“There’s a funny thing about that Doctor,” she went on. “She never should have happened. It wasn’t just one person who told her story. It was loads of them; all with just the right bit at just the right time. A police box here, a Dalek there. Everything a story needed to last forever, assembling itself into that world. Keeping itself told until the Doctor could be more than one person; until she could be anyone. It’s impossible, of course. It should have died out long ago, barely before it begun. But sometimes everything does break exactly right.”
She sighed to herself.
“That Doctor, and that story,” she said, “they’re vital, and they’re beautiful, and important. But sometimes, the world who knows her story… it can seem so afraid of an ending. And I think they’re scared, and scared of being scared; that they won’t face the world as it is. And if they keep on doing that. Not daring to stare at the darkness in case there’s a strange way through. If that keeps on happening then I don’t know”–
Her voice cracked.
“I don’t know that it’s going to be enough,” she said.
She looked down at her friend and squeezed her hand, and smiled.
“But I’m telling you this because you need to remember that sometimes miracles do happen. That you are one. That you’re talking to one. And that nothing can take that away. Whatever happens now, we chose to fight it. And we chose it knowing that we could win.”
Chris was thinking about the story of that Doctor, in that other world she’d never see. About the billions of people who lived there and the endless stories that they’d told– all making universes of their own, each as real and unreal as her own. And she thought about how so much could come out of the most powerful stories, how they made whole worlds change into things that they couldn’t conceive. About how unexpected things could still happen and bring about everything, and how that was the start of everything beautiful in the world. Like her life. Like all life. And like the Doctor.
“Where there’s life, there’s hope,” she said.
“Yes,” said the Doctor. “Whoever I’ve been, in all of the realities. I’ve always believed that, and I always will.”
She looked down gently to her friend and smiled.
“C’mon, Chris,” she said. “We’ve got work to do.”
They took each other hand in hand, and began to walk down to the darkness.
Perhaps this was only the beginning for the Doctor and Chris. Perhaps they would travel to the centre of the world and find that all was not lost, perhaps they’d pull the world back from the horrible brink. And perhaps after that they would keep travelling on for forever, seeing beauty and wonder beyond what a story could hold.
And perhaps they would come to the version of the Doctor that was a city, together to read the book that had once been her too. And in that book would be every story the Doctor had ever lived, and with a cry of delight Chris would find herself within it and realise how much more there was to go. And perhaps as she read she would realise that everyone in that city was the Doctor, that everyone always had been and always would be. That they’d only been pretending to be normal; that she should have known. And perhaps she would laugh with them as they read and spoke to her; remembering what it was to be a child. And all of them would be laughing, all those Doctors, and everything awful was a whole stretch of universe away. Perhaps this was only the beginning.
And perhaps, too, it was the end.