All of us glared at the dead machines, in which the inhabitants of this town lay still and unmoving. The Doctor was fiddling with the straps of one of them, somehow managing to open them. He then held a hand out towards the Master, palm facing upwards.
It wasn't a plea, but a command and of course the Master took way longer to even move a muscle than it needed. But in the end he did, produced the device from his pocket and handed it over.
The Doctor snatched the Sonic Screwdriver and let its light whir over the android, tongue in his teeth. Could they really be still functioning after we had drained so much energy? I tossed a glance up at the Master, finding him curious and wearing the strangest, yet incredibly subtle smile.
Once again I wondered how those two even worked together. One moment enemies, fighting their best to defeat the other, the next moment they stood side by side, hyping the same impossible occurrence. I also wondered when I had learned to read the Master so well. With everyone else I still had my usual problems, but he… it didn't even take me any effort most of the time.
"You know," drawled the Master, "that they technically can't be alive. Not in the usual sense anyway."
"And you're the one who gets to decide what the very definition of alive is?" The Doctor's voice was somewhere in the middle of amused and annoyed. "In their very own experience they might be as alive as you and I are."
"What nonsense. They are machines, Doctor. And not even the most elaborate ones. They just keep on repeating the same story over and over again."
"Maybe… You still hurt them."
"Ugh, please! Don't even start like that. I'm not and never going to have a guilty conscience about a toaster."
The Doctor whirled around with the most incredulous look. "They are not toasters!"
"You can't hypnotise a toaster," I unhelpfully tossed in, repeating the thought I had voiced once before, again catching a murderous glare from the Master for it.
"Anyway. Help me there, someone," asked the Doctor, again busy with the straps.
I looked up at the Master. This was his construction, after all, and I wasn't going to let go of the tiny dragon that slept in my hands.
"Like hell I will," he grumbled and turned away. But if you're really going to reboot them… ugh, whatever. You're not even listening, are you?"
The Doctor definitely wasn't, his Sonic wandering over straps and sizzling machine parts. Next, the Master looked at me, let his eyes wander over my closed hands and sighed.
"Why am I even doing this?" he groaned. "You two nudged a bloody dent into me! Just so you know! Insufferable idiots!"
Confused, I blinked at him, the Doctor did too, his attention finally diverted by the sudden outburst.
"Don't stare!" the Master continued, just as sourly. "This thing here was perfect! And you just ruined it. Both of you."
"Wha-haaat?" I protested. "Hold on a second. It was me you threw into the void! It was him-" I nodded to the Doctor- "you locked away with a bunch of android kids. There's nothing perfect about any of it."
"They aren't…" The Master glared glowing daggers at me and threw his hands up. "As if you'd believe it." His hands fell down and he turned on his heels, producing the Vortex Manipulator from somewhere. "Fine, do whatever you want with those tin cans. But I'm not going to let them repeat this mess. And don't you dare leave here without me."
With that he was already gone, leaving nothing more but an after image in my mind. And a lot of confusion.
"Uh… what was that about?" I wondered aloud. "I don't think I understand what just happened. Do you?"
The Doctor was done with the straps and fumbled some more with his Sonic. "Frontal lobe, definitely intact, might not even remember," he mumbled to himself, then turned to run to the next machine, only to halt abruptly when his eyes landed on me, widening slightly. "Lucy, you look a mess!" he called out, as if he hadn't seen me before.
"Yeah, thanks. Just how I feel."
He tossed several glances back and forth between me and the trapped androids, did something with his Sonic and then stretched out a hand towards me.
"They seem to be stable. Come on, let's get you checked."
I blinked at the offered hand, helplessly showing him my own, unable to let go of my fosterling.
"Oh, yeah." The Doctor's hand dropped and he grinned apologetically. "Is it… did it work at least? Can I…?"
"I hope it worked. It hatched, but…" Carefully I held my hands out and opened them just enough to let him peek inside. "It's so tiny, though. I hope it survives."
"We'll make sure of that. Don't worry."
The way back to the TARDIS was surreal. In the darkness the dead machines seemed like slain monsters, remnants of an ancient battlefield. Their shapes sat against the night, giving any overactive imagination the creeps. Maybe it was for the better that I was barely capable of that anymore. Even the way through the portal and the lurking darkness behind was less threatening now, although I kept my awareness somewhat sharp, halfway awaiting to see moving shapes of smoke swirling around us.
But nothing was there.
It was just the empty belly of an old forgotten construct. Once it probably had been part of the other world outside, or it had simply grown on its own since everyone had left who could have controlled it to do otherwise.
We reached the TARDIS in peace and the Doctor led me through a bunch of corridors to a room that might have been a lab of some sorts. Most of its machines were completely foreign to me, so I couldn't really tell. One of them was a glass terrarium filled with strange bluish plants and a special warming lamp on its top.
"Actually… I kind of don't want to give it away," I admitted. "For whatever reason, it chose me."
"Did it?" The Doctor wore a gentle smile. "I still don't know the whole story. The Master experimented on you and the egg?"
"No! No… it wasn't like that, really not." I shook my head, concentrating on the small heartbeat in my hands. Then I started to tell him about everything that had happened. About how it had reacted only to me, how the Master had hypnotized me, how I had stolen the egg… the rest wasn't new to the Doctor. "I didn't know what he did with it after that. He wouldn't give it back. I would have never expected that he would use something like…." I paused and waved at the doors to refer to the outside.
"What happened there?" the Doctor asked, curiosity and concern fighting in his tone. "There was void energy all around you for a moment. The Master wouldn't believe it, but since I…" He paused, licked his lips and glanced away for a second, before continuing. "I developed sort of a sense for it, I guess. Maybe just experience… whatever."
I had no clue what he was talking about, but I told him anyway what had happened within the darkness and the smoke. I also told him that I had seen pictures of supposed void creatures in a book and that those might have influenced my imagination.
"I mean… I wasn't actually there, right?"
"Not in the usual sense, no. The dragon could have pulled a part of your mind into the void, though. I'm not sure myself how that's possible, but… hm… I guess we'll have to watch it and see."
"Is it safe in there?" I nodded to the terrarium. "'m not sure it's warm enough. It's a dragon after all."
The Doctor grinned at my worried face and nodded enthusiastically, bobbing up and down on his heels in the process.
"It's set to match your body's temperature. And if you are warm enough, then this is too."
I hummed my doubt, but carefully placed the small creature inside the glass box anyway. "Well… can't keep it on me forever, can I? And we need to find out what the Master's doing."
"Heh, yeah. We should. But he has my Vortex Manipulator and I've got not the faintest clue as to where he went with it. However-" he blabbered on as we walked back to the control room- "he can only travel within the other place. It doesn't seem possible to go from here to there and otherwise. Probably an energetic field of sorts. It's not an actual portal, not a different dimension. Might never know, actually… fascinating, isn't it?"
"And you're tired and need rest."
"No I don't," I grumbled, crossing my arms. "You'll run off and I will miss the important bits again. Not going to happen. Period."
"Weeeell…" The Doctor rubbed the back of his head, then slowly nodded. "There is one thing I wanted to have checked. It's probably as dum as rebooting all the others, but… I just have to." He gave me a grin and stretched his hand out. "Come along?"
I chuckled at the gesture, but took his hand anyway. "Sure. Lead the way, Doctor."
Again we walked through the darkness, again it felt strangely empty, compared to before. The Doctor's grip on my hand was firm and assuring the whole time. And warm.
All those small non-adventures, all the time we had spent together, and I had never realised what a soft warmth he gave off. Like a small, guiding sun in the distance. Only that he wasn't at all distant but right here.
It wasn't that I trusted him because the Master had told me to do so. Not entirely. It was the implications that swung within those words. Because he knew how dangerous it could get to be around the Doctor, knew about what I had only heard of in vague snippets. That this man was as much of a source of chaos and death as the Master could be. And still the Master was convinced that there was no safer place to have me, than at the side of his… enemy?
We crossed the white portal, stumbling into the eerily silent saloon. No piano tunes greeted us, no laughter or clinking glasses. The room felt finally and undeniably like the stage it actually was, had been the entire time.
None of it had been real and yet it had somehow. The thought made my head spin, but I was unable to shake it off. We were in a matrix made of flesh and blood, a simulation of growing metal. And somewhere…
"Somewhere deep inside its core there has to be the heart," I mumbled to myself, not entirely sure what that even meant. It was simply a thought, a conclusion. Something that sounded nice and felt as if it should have meaning.
The Doctor stopped and glanced down at me, head tilted and eyebrow raised. "The heart, huh?"
"Uh… well… this place seems to have a mind of its own."
"Mhm… some sort of artificial intelligence, yes. Yes. Thought that to myself already. Maybe growing, learning. Evolving."
We continued our way and I saw that we were heading to the boarded off house we had been trapped in before. The hour or so we had spent in the TARDIS had been a lot longer here due to the time distortion. Sunrays stretched across the empty streets, illuminating what was left of its inhabitants. Now that I knew what these people were, those contraptions seemed a lot less appalling to me, although I still did my best not to look at them too closely.
"Will you really free them?" I wondered aloud.
"Sure!" The answer came immediately, not an ounce of doubt in it. "I don't think they are entirely unconscious. For them this here might feel real. So why take it away?"
"Mhmm…" I made and mumbled a thought I had had a thousand times already. "Would you learn today you're not a real person, would it change what you experienced?"
The Doctor chuckled and squeezed my hand a little. "I see, you found the right question already. I've met enough artificial lifeforms already, they can be as real and as conscious as you and I. And only because these here aren't advanced enough to be completely autonomous… I think they might still enjoy what they have. And that's definitely worth preserving."
I huffed a laugh, unsure if this was ridiculous or amazing. Maybe a bit of both. It made me wonder if I would have done the same, if I would have protested would the Doctor have decided to simply leave. After all, I had nothing to do with those people, no matter what they were.
When I glanced up I saw the Doctor's look grow sad, as if he had sensed what I had just… I winced and quickly tore my hand out of his.
"You're not looking at my thoughts, are you?"
"What? No, of course not! I wouldn't. It's just…" Suddenly he looked extremely uncomfortable, gnawing his bottom lip. "Touch telepathy… you always pick up some stray… not thoughts. More like… not even images. Impressions maybe? I think that's it. That's all."
Right. Without a proper connection he couldn't. I had learned as much already. And still did it disturb me how much he was able to at least glimpse.
"Is that why you always want to hold hands? You and him, both. You want to make sure you know what the other person is up to."
"That… no!" the Doctor exclaimed, raising his hands defiantly. "It's really not that. Most people aren't even very… uh… readable." He gulped when I squinted at him. "Look… you're sort of an open book. On a psychic level, I mean. It's hard to read you any other way, honestly, but you don't have strong mental barriers. Which is not why I held your hand! It's not, is really not. It's just… just… I just like it!"
After the last words the Doctor visibly deflated and looked so crestfallen that I had barely another choice but to believe him. And, in the end, it wasn't even that strange. People just love to know with whom they have to deal with. Only the methods were different.
I exhaled heavily and rubbed with two fingers over my eyes. "Sorry. Didn't want to snap at you."
The smile was back on his face, a bit more subtle than before. "It's okay. I know it's scary for humans."
I shook my head. "It's not that. Maybe… a little. I'm not sure what to think, honestly. The Master is… was… it doesn't feel strange when he's in my head… when… when we're connected? Is that even a proper term for this?" I raised an eyebrow and shrugged. "But when I felt you before, in the void, or whatever it was…"
"It was like an intrusion." The Doctor sighed. "Look, we learn to never use this on other species for a reason. Many aren't as telepathic as Time Lords, or in a completely different way. But humans… you are so close, yet so far away. It can damage you if it's done wrong. It can… it is… I'm sorry. I would have never done this if there had been a better option. And the handholding-"
"It's alright." Suddenly I had to laugh, what earned me the most puzzled expression. "It really is," I reassured. "It's just all so strange to me. But I do get the handholding. Feeling someone else close, if only a little, even if it doesn't mean anything. It's better than…" I shrugged. He knew it anyway.
The Doctor nodded, glancing away in an unusual shy manner.
"That why you freaked out so much when I told you the Master had been in my head?"
He grumbled and nodded. "Told him not to do that to people, but he's just doing whatever he wants. No matter if that hurts others."
"But he didn't," I objected. Well, he had, but the Doctor didn't need to know all the details. "And I was surprised… because… it never felt intrusive, you know? More… comforting, honestly. He's not hurting me. And…" I remembered their conversation from when I had floated around as a ghost. "And he does have my consent with this."
The Doctor glared at me, mouth slightly opened as if to protest, but in the end he caught himself and straightened. "Well… can't say I approve of it, but… if that's true, then… I'm not one who should tell you otherwise."
He tried to smile, but the expression he ended up with was more one of deep sadness and something else I couldn't name. Almost as if he had just lost something incredibly important. And when we continued our way he didn't take my hand anymore.