The wiring under the TARDIS console sparks, and the Doctor jerks her hand away with a little hiss of pain. The sense of mild temporal queasiness that alerted her to the problem in the first place is gone, though, so that's good.
Well. Mostly gone. Gone enough. Once she replaces the paneling, she can hardly even feel it any more. She'll have to pay some attention to it again soon, clearly -- the paperclip in the continuum stabilizer circuit is probably not really a long-term solution -- but it can wait. Maybe the next time she does her five-hunded-year maintenance. Which should be...
The Doctor does some quick calculations in her head.
Which should be approximately five hundred years ago. Oops. Well, never mind. If it's waited this long, it can wait a little longer. And she has other things to do today. Places to go, people to see, exciting adventures to stumble into completely by accident...
Graham is looking down at her as she slides out from under the console and pulls her goggles off. "All fixed, Doc?"
"Yep," she says. "All fixed. Well, mostly fixed. Good enough fixed. Nothing to worry about!"
He look like he might be considering worrying, anyway, but instead just nods, trustingly. Good old Graham.
"So," says Ryan from somewhere on the other side of the console. "Does that mean we're off to Planet Whatsinax now?"
She sits up, pops her head above the console, and looks at him. "Parecelenax!," she says. "Lovely place. You'll love it, Ryan. Especially at Festival time. They make these wonderful little cakey things." She makes an enthusiastic gesture with her hands, intended to capture the delightfully complex shape of Parcelenax's lovely little cakey things, realizes he probably can't see it very well from there, and stands up.
"Well," says Ryan. He's leaning against one of the crystal columns, his arms folded comfortably across his chest. "Good. It'll make a nice change from alien invasions and people trying to rewrite history and that."
"Oh, yeah," says the Doctor. "A nice little break. That's what we need!" And if she's long had a hunch something might not quite be right on that planet, well. They'll just have to see what they can see. She grins to herself at the thought. "It'll be so much fun."
"I'm sure it will," says Yaz, entering the room and walking up in time to catch the end of the conversation. "But, hey, can I ask a favor? When we get back from this trip, can you drop me off home for a bit? I promised my parents I'd spend some time with them. They've been nagging me. Again." She rolls her eyes good-naturedly and smiles, but the Doctor can see it in her face, that familiar conflict between wanting to spend time with the people you care about and wanting to rush off into the next adventure. The Doctor knows that feeling really well. It's why she prefers to take her fam along with her.
Probably not an option for Yaz's family, though. Things could get crowded. "'Course," she says. "That's one thing we've got plenty of, time. That, and space."
As if on cue, the TARDIS responds with a cheerful wheeze-and-thunk.
"There we are!" says the Doctor. "We've landed! Parecelenax, here we come!"
"Nice," says Graham. "I could really go for some cake."
The Doctor puts her hand on the door control, and--
The wiring under the TARDIS console sparks, and the Doctor jerks her hand away with a yelp of surprise. The sense of temporal queasiness is worse again, now, a faint but very definite feeling. Like seasickness in her brain.
She stares at the wiring. It stares back at her. Or, more accurately, it sits there doing nothing that looks interesting.
"All fixed yet, Doc?" says Graham. His voice starts off light and casual, but by the time he gets to "Doc," there something different about it, some soft hint of confusion. "Huh," he says, as she extracts herself and sits up to look at him. "Weird. Bit of deja vu there." He laughs, dismissing it, but she thinks his eyes still look troubled. She takes the goggles off and looks closer. Yep. Definitely troubled. As if he's looking for something, and forgotten where he put it.
"Is that a thing that happens when you get old?" says Ryan.
"Wouldn't know. Haven't really done it yet, have I?"
The Doctor stands. Ryan looks at her. "So, are we off to Planet Paradoxis now?" he says. "'Cause I think we could use a nice, relaxing break. The old man here is tired."
"Hey!" says Graham. He's smiling, but... But he does look tired. He didn't look tired last time, did he? "You just stop that, now. You'll be as old as me one day, too, you know. If you're lucky."
"Parecelenax," she says. Or maybe mumbles. She's a bit too distracted just now to concentrate on clear diction. "Yeah, well. Maybe not just yet. There's one or two things I ought to check on, first." She pats the TARDIS console. It's got a bit dusty, she notices, but she can worry about tidying up after she's dealt with... with whatever's going on just now. Is it just a problem with the continuum stabilizer? Maybe the interior dimensions are becoming temporally unanchored. That could be a problem. She needs some diagnostics. "Is anyone besides Graham having deja vu?"
"Huh?" says Ryan.
Behind them, Yaz walks into the console room. "Listen, Doctor. Assuming you get whatever it is fixed--" she says.
"Just some temporal slippage," says the Doctor, quickly. "Nothing to be too worried about." She smiles at them brightly. Strangely, they don't look very reassured.
"Yeah," says Yaz. "Assuming you get that fixed and we actually get to take this holiday you've been promising, can you drop me off at home, after? I really... Well, I think I just need to not be traveling for a while." She looks tired, too. And there's something else, something in her eyes... Or something missing from her eyes.
The Doctor tilts her head. "That's not what you said before."
Almost unnoticed, the TARDIS thunks and wheezes to a landing.
"What?" says Yaz. "What do you mean, before?"
The wiring under the TARDIS console sparks, and the Doctor jerks her hand away with a groan of frustration.
She's starting to feel truly, properly seasick now, as if the ocean of Time has gone all choppy and full of foam. Which is odd, because Time isn't really much like a sea at all, and because she almost never gets sick on the actual sea, and because...
Stop. Stop. She has to focus.
"Don't you have that fixed yet?" says Graham. He sounds weary. Like all the patience has been drained out of him.
"No," she says quietly, staring at the wiring. "Not yet." Is there something she's missing here? She goes over it again, tracing the connections. That looks right. And that does. And that... All right, yes, there's bit with the paperclip, but that really, really shouldn't cause this sort of effect. It's a very sturdy paperclip.
"Feels like we've been hanging out here in... What d'you call it? The Temporal Vortex? Feels like we've been here for ages," says Ryan. "When are we going to stop? You promised us a holiday, and instead we're stuck here."
Every loop they seem to be getting grumpier. Is that a clue? "Do you feel sick at all, Ryan?" If even the humans can feel it, that seasick-y wrongness, that could mean...
Actually, she isn't sure what it could mean, but it doesn't sound good.
"Just tired," Ryan says. "You've kept us here so long."
"It's only been three iterations!" the Doctor can't help protesting.
"What?" says Ryan.
Maybe if she unplugs the continuum module and plugs it back in again. That works, sometimes. Well, it did get that weird rattling sound to stop last time, anyway.
She pulls it out. The lights dim and redden slightly. Perfectly normal. She reinserts it. The lights don't change. Okay, that's less normal.
And why is there all this dust?
"Can we go home?" says Yaz.
The Doctor slides out from under the console, removes her goggles, and looks at her. There's something about the way she's standing, something different, something wrong.
"Did you just come in?" says the Doctor, "Or have you been standing there the whole time?"
"Come in from where?" says Yaz. She sounds tired. She looks tired. Unhealthy. Gray, like dust. "There isn't anywhere else."
And the Doctor abruptly realizes what's wrong.
Behind Yaz, where the interior door should be, is nothing but wall. The rest of the TARDIS is gone.
"Now, nobody panic," says the Doctor. "But I think we might have a teeny, tiny little problem."
The TARDIS wheezes and thunks.
"Oh, no," says the Doctor. "No, no, no, not yet--"
The wiring under the TARDIS console sparks, and the Doctor jerks her hand away and swallows down a wave of nausea.
"She hasn't fixed anything," Graham is saying. "She never does."
"Only makes promises," says Ryan. "Promises she'll take you somewhere nice. But it never is, is it? There's only ever more death and stuff."
"Promises she'll save people," says Graham. "And look how that turns out."
"Promises she'll get you home," says Yaz.
Ignore them. Ignore them, ignore them. Ignore the way they sound as if everything bright and curious and optimistic has drained right out of them. Ignore what they're saying, the way the words twist inside your hearts. Ignore it, if you want to save them.
She can figure this out. She will figure this out. Trace the circuits, check the programming, find the fault.
If only she didn't feel so sick. If only the console weren't inexplicably full of cobwebs.
If only they'd stop talking.
"Gonna be stuck in the Vortex forever."
"I'll never see my family again."
"We're going to grow old and die in here, aren't we? Well. Older. I already feel so old. Like we've been in here so long."
"Stop it, Graham," she says, her hands desperately tracing across yet another circuit. "It's only been four loops."
Has it only been four loops?
Nausea rises inside her again, great cresting waves of it.
That might be more than four loops worth of nausea. Can she trust her own sense of Time? How long has she been doing this?
She closes her eyes. Her fingers continue to trace the circuitry, to deftly feel out the wiring. Should she be that familiar with it? How long have they really been here?
"Fine for her, innit?" says Ryan. "She's immortal. She'll just regenerate, won't she? But we'll stay dead. Forever."
They won't, though, will they? They'll just repeat, and repeat, and repeat, until she fixes things. And she will fix it.
"I'm so tired," Graham says. "I think I'll sit down." She can hear him slumping, almost crashing, to the floor. She tries to ignore it. She has to concentrate.
"I want to go home," says Yaz. "I want to go home."
The TARDIS wheezes and thunks.
"We're stuck," says Ryan. "We're never gonna get home. Not like this."
"We will," she says. "We will, I promise. I just have to figure out--"
The wiring under the TARDIS console sparks, and the Doctor jerks her hand away to clamp it over her mouth. She has to waste precious seconds calming her breathing, forcing herself not to vomit. The waves of Time are a howling storm. A churning chaotic ocean of...
Of dust. Of entropy and decay.
The Cloister Bell is sounding. It has been doing so, she realizes, for a very, very long time.
How long have they been doing this? She remembers... four loops? Five?
It's been more than five. It's been so many that the very fabric of time is falling to pieces. So many that the entire concept of time is beginning to degrade.
"It's not fixable, is it?" says Graham, from where he has fallen to the floor. He sounds tired, and ill, and resigned.
How has she not solved the problem yet, not in all these loops? How is that even possible? Is this what she's losing? Her skill, her confidence, her mind?
Stop. Stop, Doctor. Think.
She stops. She slides out from under the console. She stands, and removes the goggles, and looks at her friends. Really looks at them.
"You've killed us all, Doctor," says Ryan. "You really have."
Like Graham, he has fallen, slumped against the column as if the gravity in the room has become too much for him. His hair has gone gray. His eyes are haunted and hollow. His skin is wrinkled and sagging, but not with age. Aging is an effect of time proceeding normally. This is something entirely different.
And that's not gray in his hair at all. It's powdered pieces of crystal. The TARDIS itself is crumbling into dust.
"We never should have trusted you to get us home," says Yaz. She, at least, is still standing, if only barely. The Doctor can see her trembling with the effort. "We should have stopped before we started. And now there's no way out. There's nothing left but this."
Graham says nothing at all. His eyes are closed now, his breathing shallow.
They're dying. They really are dying. Their human bodies can't handle the temporal displacement, not after this many repetitions. Their human consciousnesses can't, either. Can't process what's happening to them. Whatever they're experiencing, their minds are translating it into these feelings, of being trapped, of being stuck, of eternally spinning through the Vortex and never, ever getting anywhere, of there no longer being anywhere to go.
With a wheeze and a thunk, the TARDIS lands.
Wait. Wait. There's something here. Some kind of thought. Something--
The wiring under the TARDIS console sparks, and the Doctor jerks her entire body away, pulling herself out.
The answers aren't under there. She's almost certain of that, now.
BONG. BONG. BONgggggg... The sound of the Cloister Bell fades, and stutters, and stops. Dust falls all around her. Her hands and knees leave deep prints in it as she stands.
The nausea is so much a part of her now, she barely feels it. Not a good sign.
"Fix..." says Graham, a sigh from between pale, cracking lips. Otherwise, he is completely still.
"See what you've done?" says Ryan. He is huddled in a heap on the floor. His voice is a harsh, rasping croak. "This is what happens..." He licks his lips, tries to get another word out, but can't seem to manage it.
"...when you don't know how to stop," Yaz finishes for him, and collapses.
And this is it. This is where the answer is. She can almost feel it. What is it? What is it? Something about this all being her fault, about her getting them killed, as she has so very many others. Her inability to just leave people alone, safe on their homeworlds, living their perfectly fine little domestic lives with their loved ones. To stop putting them in situations like this that they were never meant to handle, her damnable, damnable inability to ever pause for one single moment, to stop, to just stop, to just--
The TARDIS wheezes and thunks.
--to just stop.
"Aaaaaargh!" Despite the weariness, despite the nausea, her cry is loud enough to bring showers of dust and cobwebs and crumbling time machine down on her head. "I am an idiot!"
The Cloister Bell booms once, as if in agreement.
The wiring under the TARDIS console sparks, and the Doctor jerks her hand away. She sits up so fast she hits her head on the underside of the console. Dust showers into her hair and across her face. She barely notices.
"I am an idiot! You were trying to tell me something all along! And it's not the paperclip! It's not the paperclip, and it's not... not..."
Not about her failing them, not about them all dying and leaving her. Not about the horror of being stuck in one place forever, not about her own inability to ever sit still and stay out of trouble. Just about...
"It isn't about anything but stopping, is it? Just pure, literal..."
She stands. She brushes a layer of dust off the controls, and places her hand on a simple, unassuming lever.
She hits the emergency interrupt. The TARDIS comes to a halt in the Vortex, spinning gently into stillness.
There is a pause, a moment of absolute quiet. And then a shudder. And then...
The lifting of the nausea is more than a relief. It's almost a shock. Like regenerating and finding herself much taller, or shorter, or (she assumes) more ginger. Like something she's been taking for granted for a lifetime has suddenly changed.
"Oh," she says. "Oh, you poor, beautiful, wonderful thing. You picked up a Vortex Parasite, didn't you? That's what was causing it all. The looping, the timeline degredations, everything. And all you needed to do was to stop so you could eject it!"
Her fingers trace loving patterns across the console. "You were trying to tell me the entire time, weren't you? You couldn't break the loop, but you could find iterations where they said things..." She pauses and looks around the room. Her friends are quiet and still where they lie, but she can still hear them breathing. They aren't too late. They aren't too late. "… where they said things that gave me the right clues. Where they said the word 'stop!' And then you managed to manipulate the temporal slippage just enough to give me a continuity of consciousness between those moments. Oh, you clever, clever girl." She bends down and kisses the console, undmindful of the taste of dust on her lips. The lights in the room flicker and grow a little brighter.
"It can't have been easy. I mean, I know I..." She stops. She checks on her human friends again. They're still breathing. Still here. They will be okay.
"I know I haven't always done as well by them as I could. But all the things they said... That was just the timeline decaying, wasn't it? Every iteration becoming darker and colder and more hopeless, as the parasite fed on everyone's temporal and psychic energy."
The TARDIS doesn't answer, but she can feel a reassuring hum beneath her fingers. "Yeah." She draws a deep breath. "Yeah." There. That almost sounded like she believed it.
Good enough. It will be have to be good enough.
Carefully, gently, she enters a new set of coordinates, and releases the interrupt.
Stepping quickly through soft, ashy dust, she goes over to Yaz, sits down beside her, and takes her still, gray hand. "I will always get you home," she says. "I will. I promise."
The TARDIS wheezes, and thunks, and lands.
The wiring under the TARDIS console sparks. The Doctor doesn't move her hand away, but gives the wires a grateful little caress, and replaces the panel.
"All fixed, Doc?"
She slides out and sits up. "Yeah. Yeah. It's all fixed."
He grins at her. "Great. Knew you could do it, Doc!"
The smile, the confidence of his tone, the sheer, happy reality of him, it all threatens to make her cry. So sentimental she's getting, in her old age. She smiles at him instead, and stands, and hugs him.
"Oof," he says, surprised, but hugging her back. "What's that for, then?"
"For having a genuinely unwise amount of faith in me," she says.
"Okay," he says, confused but accepting, as she pulls out of the hug.
"So," says Ryan, giving them an amused look from where he lounges across the console. "Are we off to Planet Whatsinax now, or do you guys need more hugging time?"
"Oi! Don't think I won't hug you, too!" She considers going over there to make good on the threat, but decides that first she really ought to take a look at the console instead.
They're still on the heading she set a few minutes ago, in a timeline that now never existed. Oh, good girl. Good, clever, wonderful, lovely old girl.
"Change of plans," she says. And then, having counted off the minutes in her head, "Hi, Yaz!"
"Um, hi," says Yaz, walking into the room. If she's surprised that the Doctor seemed to know she was coming, she takes it in stride. Good old Yaz. "Hey, could I ask you a favor?"
"Already on it!" The Doctor looks from Yaz to Ryan. "See, I've been thinking. I know you've all wanted a rest. Something nice and relaxing. And Parecelenax, well, it's a fun place. Very exciting. Lovely cakes. But maybe not quite what we all need right now. So I've changed our destination."
"Okay," says Ryan. "To where?" He only looks very slightly nervous. Which is probably about the right amount of nervous, really. A good amount of nervousness for staying safe. Yes. That's perfectly all right.
"Earth," she says. "Outside Yaz's flat. Take some time, Yaz. Go and see your parents. Eat some chips, see a film, post some pictures of your lunch on the internet. You know, nice, relaxing Earth things. Parecelenax will still be there when you're ready. And I don't promise anything, mind, but there may just possibly be a teensy weensy alien invasion happening, so that could be fun!"
They all look at each other. "Honestly," says Graham. "I wouldn't mind a little break."
"Me either," says Ryan. "No offense, Doctor, but constant alien invasions and things do get a little tiring after the forth or fifth one."
Yaz shrugs. "I was going to ask for some time at home afterward, anyway. I don't actually mind six alien invasions in a row, but I did promise my parents I'd spend some time with them."
"Okay then!" says the Doctor. "Fab. You all go do your human relaxing, and self-care, and family, and things, and meet me back at the TARDIS, in, say, a week."
"And what are you going to be doing for a week?" says Ryan.
The Doctor looks at the console. As if reading her mind -- and, let's be honest, she probably is -- the TARDIS flashes some warm, amber lights at her. "I've got some maintenance to do." Starting with the temporal firewalls that are supposed to keep parasitic intruders very firmly out. Or maybe with the continuum stabilizer. Or...
Well. She has time.
"It's far, far overdue," she adds. "After all, you humans aren't the only ones who need looking after."
More lights dance across the console. Ignoring the humans' amused protests, she bends low and whispers into -- well, all right, that's actually the interior thermostat control, but it doesn't really matter. "I know. I know, dear. You look after me very, very well."
The TARDIS wheezes and thunks.
The Doctor puts her hand on the door control. She draws a deep breath. She activates it.
The doors open. Outside there is sunlight, and Earth. Films and chips and friends and a home away from home. A place where it's all right, just for a while, to stop.
"Don't worry," she says. "We'll be here when you get back. We won't go anywhere without you."
The invasion on Parecelenax, they discover one calm and linear week later, requires only three well-rested humans and one newly liberated paperclip to foil.
And the cakes are, in fact, really, really good.