The Doctor was clearly on his way to find the children again, but when we entered the house we didn't only find it wide open it also was as empty as a house could be.
"I wonder what he wants to do with them," I murmured. "Maybe they were too weak for the machines, but…"
"Oh, I think this is something else. I'm just not sure, yet, if I like it or not. And if I'm right. But might be, should be. Would make a lot more sense, you know."
The honest answer would have been a clear no, albeit this wasn't the most pressing thought in my mind. I wanted to know where everyone was and what the Master had done since we had left. The machines outside were untouched and there was no trace of… anything at all, actually. It felt as if we were stumbling through a broken doll house.
Outside we walked through the deserted town, peeking inside empty houses. We passed the center where the round symbol still lay uncovered from the sand, reminding of a summoning circle instead of a machine part.
"Do you hear that?" the Doctor asked eventually. "I think they are nearby."
I strained my ears and really could hear something like voices, laughter? I tossed a questioning glance at my companion but got no answer. Instead he sped up his steps, making it hard for me to follow. Damn his long legs!
We rounded a corner, got behind one of the houses and… froze. The scene was so utterly unexpected and impossible that I simply couldn't move a muscle.
The children were there, some running around, trying to catch others, one was sleeping in a tree that stood next to a stone well. And under that tree… sat the Master, surrounded by a group of other children, all intently listening to whatever he told them in excited words, gesturing about and making a real scene. Here and there one of the children winced, or gave off a surprised squeak. And each time there was a reaction like that I saw the Master's eyes crinkle with joy.
Puzzled, I looked up at the Doctor. His mouth hung open, eyes glued to the scene ahead. Eventually we came closer, but the Master ignored our presence in favour of finishing his story. One about how he had been part of a galactic war and had sneaked into the main base of the emperor's fleet to steal a highly valuable crystal from one of the ships' cores. He did his best describing how he stealthily invaded the base, hypnotised guards, had fights with surprising attackers and, finally, managed to get to the core and even flee with his treasure. Unintentionally he had ended the entire war with that act. Only to start another one on a distant planet instead.
When he was done with the story, and only then, did his eyes wander towards us and his look was challenging, provocative even.
The children, however, cheered and begged for more and when they saw us the excited screams got louder. I saw the girl that had confronted the Master in the house sitting at the edge of the crowd, not looking as concerned as she probably should.
Another girl, not older than seven or eight, ran towards us and grabbed my hand. "It's alright, you can come closer," she said, smiling widely.
"What in the universe is going on here?" the Doctor asked, unable to hide his confusion. "What have you done with them?"
"As always, you draw the wrong conclusions, dear Doctor."
The Master got up from the ground, dusted his clothes off and stepped closer, gracefully avoiding a small boy who was chasing another. The Time Lord's grin was wide and also weirdly… calm.
"Have you reprogrammed them?" asked the Doctor incredulously. "That's… that's… I don't even know what to say."
"You obviously don't even know what to think." The Master laughed and rubbed his hands, enjoying himself way too much. His eyes wandered to me, but when I shrugged he pursed his lips. "Och, no one?"
The Doctor pinched the bridge of his nose and groaned. "Okay, just tell us already. I won't like it anyway."
"We'll take those children to the TARDIS."
"See? I don't like it. You can't have them as little slaves, Master."
I snorted at the thought and tried not to laugh at the actual image in my head. His venomous look couldn't manage to wipe my smile away.
"And that's why I hate doing good things," he grumbled, folding his arms.
"Good?" the Doctor called out. "After what you just did? Look at this place! Everything's broken and all the people are… are…" He gestured with his hands, lacking a word to describe the situation.
"They are robots!" a boy squeaked. He had probably overheard our conversation. "Mama and auntie and even the old man from Gustav's ranch! Did you know, Sir?"
The Doctor glared at the child, then at the Master. The other Time Lord chuckled and ruffled through the boy's hair. An absent gesture, but still so gentle, the smile warm. It was almost more uncanny than the artificial environment.
"Tell us another story!" a girl begged.
"Tell the one with the dragon again!" another child asked.
The older children stood farther away, not quite as excited, but also not looking alarmed or concerned. Their expressions were more thoughtful and even sad.
Not the expression of reprogrammed or hypnotized people.
"But how?" I wondered, earning myself a puzzled look from the Doctor and a happy smile from the Master.
Then it seemed to dawn on the Doctor and he gasped surprised.
"They are real! Ohhhhh! Oh, they are, aren't they?" Quickly he produced his specs from a coat pocket and slipped them up his nose, looking the nearest child up and down. "What's your name, little one?"
"Henry," the older boy told, smiling proudly up at the Doctor. "Am the butcher's son, Sir. Was. Or… mhm… maybe still am?"
"Well… that's… actually…"
I glanced at the Master. "They are real people, aren't they?"
"Yup. Real as you and me."
"That's why you spared them. They are no use for the machines." I huffed and nudged him. "Or did your old hearts get soft because they're children?"
"Tze. Don't be daft, human," the Master growled. "They are too small to give off decent energy. And I wasn't in the mood to alter all my calculations for them."
Meanwhile, the Doctor was walking small circles, chin in hand, forehead wrinkled. Suddenly he stopped, almost bumped against a girl and hurled around to us.
"The upgrades!" he called out. "Oh, brilliant!"
"Upgrades?" I wondered.
"Yes! The children told us their parents go and get replaced by younger models. And the AI of this place is designed to learn and evolve!" His hands now talked almost as much and as quickly as himself. "The builders probably left data of themselves and left it to the program to figure out behavioral patterns. Letting the androids be patched now and then. New data, New patterns, new knowledge. Leading to more advanced simulations and more realistic behavior!"
I blew up my cheeks and pushed out some air with a whistle. That definitely was plausible.
"But… if they managed to reproduce, then shouldn't their children also be… androids?" My questioning look wandered from the Doctor to the Master, expecting someone to solve this for me.
The Doctor, however, deflated visibly, mouth open with the lack of words.
"Technically," the Master drawled, "they are neither androids nor real people. Made of flesh and blood and, if you ask me, as conscious and autonomous as a real being. But yes… they were birthed from the androids. Must be a recent development. There aren't any adults or even adolescents, yet."
I stared at the playing children and those that stood aside with worried looks. None of them dared to get too close to the Master, but they seemed to have lost most of the initial fear they had had in the beginning. Most of them were probably too young to fully understand what all of this even meant. And what consequences this would have.
"We can't take them with us, though," the Doctor mumbled. "They have family and-"
"They don't," grunted the Master. "The androids only repeat a set of scenarios. They do adapt, but they're not… they don't evolve as much."
And with everyone else I would see that as reason enough to help, but having the Master be the one to tell this and suggest getting them away from here… I couldn't help but think that there was more behind this, that he was trying to scheme something new.
And the thought Immediately let a guilty feeling shoot through my body. I shouldn't be so prejudiced. Something about his behavior was so different. Less aggressive and almost protective. Maybe he does have a soft spot for children, I pondered. It was hard to believe, but who could ever tell with him?
"I still want to reboot the inhabitants." The Doctor rubbed his neck and put his specs away. "Doesn't sit right with me to leave them like this. Buuuuut…. "
"I reprogrammed the algorithm," the Master interrupted. "They can't reproduce anymore and everything that could lead to a similar advancement is blocked from the code."
Dumbfounded, the Doctor glared at the other man who promptly snorted derisively.
"Don't be so surprised. I knew you wouldn't skip a chance to save those things. And like that they can't do any harm anymore at least."
"That's… that's… that's brilliant!" the Doctor exclaimed and almost jumped, stumbling a step forwards to grab the Master's hands and squeeze them. The other one tried to escape, but had no chance. "Absolutely brilliant. Thank you! I could bloody ki-" He winced and abruptly let go, snapping his mouth shut. Within seconds the tension in the air grew and the Master's look darkened.
I coughed to divert their attention. "I'll bring the kids to the TARDIS, then. 'S not as if I'm of much help here.
"I'll come with you," the Master grumbled, roughly bumping the Doctor's shoulder when he walked past him. "Can't stand to look at him being a do-gooder again."
The look from the Doctor was impossible to decipher. Uncertain, maybe afraid, maybe something like help-seeking. I couldn't tell and only shrugged as I walked away.
We went to the tree, where a bunch of children still sat and played, telling them to get up and follow us. The excitement was big, but also the fear and uncertainty. The older ones started to ask questions I could only partially answer. Where would we take them? What would happen to their families? What even were they?
The Master was no help at all, his look gloomy and everything about him radiating that he didn't want to be bothered. But when a small girl fell and scraped her knee, he wordlessly picked her up and took her on his shoulders, where she sat sniffling.
"So, you do like kids, then," I concluded, daring to challenge his mood.
He grunted. "No. But if they start whining they will slow us down. And I want to get away from this place as soon as possible."
"Too many bad memories?"
His glare could have been deadly.
"No bad memories," the girl on his shoulder sniffed. "I want good ones. I want my papa."
"He's gone," grumbled the Master. "You don't need a half broken doll."
"Broken? Papa is broken?"
"Something like that."
New tears welled in the girl's eyes, but then her face lit up a little. "Can you be my new papa?"
The Master froze, his whole body tensing. I peeked at his face, but couldn't make out what his hardened expression could mean. After a while he somewhat relaxed again, but something about him suddenly felt almost… broken.
"No, that's not possible," he mumbled, voice weirdly small. "That would do no good, little one."
"Alright, Mister," sniffed the child.
"It's Master," grumbled the Time Lord.
"Alright, Master," said the girl, now a bit less sad, wiping her small eyes.
I fell back a few steps, but only to hide my smile. And also to keep myself from asking questions I wouldn't get an answer to anyway.