“What does this one do?”
The Doctor stands on her tiptoes to look over Ryan’s shoulder at the console. “Air-conditioning,” she says. “Turn it left for cold air, turn it to the right for hot.”
Ryan nods, makes a note on his phone. “And this lever?” He points.
“Hand-brake.” She reaches past him and flips the lever downwards. “Shouldn’t really have it on while we’re in vortex, pretend you didn’t see that.”
She isn’t teaching him to fly the TARDIS, not as such, but Ryan’s good with mechanical things and the Doctor likes to show off, and it makes sense for at least one of her friends to know what to press to get home in an emergency. She does her best but accidents happen and one day they might need to be able to get home on their own. Fingers crossed at all times but better safe than sorry.
“What about that big red button?”
She glances at it. “Reset button,” she says automatically. But then she freezes. Reset button? Since when? Ryan is waiting for an explanation so she invents an easy lie. “Sets the custard cream counter back to zero.”
“Why do you need to -”
“I think that’s enough for today,” she says, gently moving him away from the controls with a touch.
He’s obviously disappointed but he accepts that the lesson is over. The Doctor sends him off to find the others and then turns back to the console.
Reset button. What does that even mean? She runs a hand along the console and looks up at the big crystal in the centre. “What are you playing at, old girl?” she whispers. “What are you up to?”
She relies on the TARDIS to let her know what to do with new controls that appear overnight, and with a bit of concentration she gets a sense of change and possibility, as well as a cautionary not yet. The TARDIS isn’t trapped by linearity, and it wouldn’t be the first time that she’s added something that’s only useful at a later date. So, not yet.
The Doctor’s hand hovers over the button anyway, because you can’t just show her a big red button, tell her not to touch it, and expect her to resist the obvious temptation. The TARDIS should know better. The Doctor should know better. She fights her own curiosity and tells herself to trust her ship. If it’s there then it’s there for a reason. Wait and see.
The Doctor doesn’t press the button.
A week passes and she puts the new button to the back of her mind, leaves the mystery to resolve itself when the TARDIS thinks it’s time. She gets distracted by adventure and her friends, the way she always does. Things go back to what passes for normal in the Doctor’s life.
And then Ryan gets shot by a Dalek.
You don’t get better from something like that, not if you’re as fragile as humans are. The Doctor knows this better than anyone, and there are some things even she can’t cure. Even with a sonic screwdriver, even with a TARDIS, even with Graham and Yaz screaming at her to find a loophole in the Laws of Time. (There aren’t any, she’s checked.)
She tells them about time and energy and the dangers of changing events you’ve experienced already. She explains the theory of fixed points. She talks about paradoxes and continuity errors. She even starts to explain how the TARDIS works, but Graham tells her not to bother talking if it isn’t going to help.
She takes them home and they chase her away. She promises to come back for the funeral, but they know as well as she does that this is a lie. She says goodbye and they don’t.
The Doctor trudges back to the TARDIS muttering under her breath about humans and Time Lords and the unalterable fact that you only get one chance with these things.
Or do you?
She remembers the reset button and picks up her pace, walking faster and then faster still, running the last twenty metres and skidding to a halt in front of the TARDIS. She finds the key in her pocket, misses the lock in her haste to open the door and leaves a new scratch on the paintwork.
She steps into her TARDIS and the ship says now.
This must be it, this must be what she was waiting for. Her hearts race as she reaches the controls. She takes a deep breath and slaps her hand down on the reset button before she can change her mind.
She waits a bit more.
Finally her shoulders sag and she steps away from the console. “Yeah,” she says, defeated, “that’d be too easy.” Defeated, she turns around and goes back outside for some air.
Without any obvious signs of travelling, she’s back on the planet where they ran into the Daleks. She lifts her hand to shade her eyes from the two suns in the sky. It’s the beach where they had a picnic that morning, before -
“You took your time.”
The Doctor turns her head and sees her friends – all three of them, alive and well and happy – sitting on the beach. Yaz is opening a bottle of Orange Fizzade and Ryan’s handing out sandwiches from the picnic basket.
Graham looks at her with concern. “You alright there, Doc?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.” She looks back at the TARDIS and silently thanks it for giving her a second chance. She turns to her friends. “I know you were looking forward to this, but I’ve just checked the weather forecast. Monsoon season.”
Ryan looks up at the clear blue sky. “Doesn’t look like it.”
“Very sudden monsoon season.” She nods towards the TARDIS. “Come on, I’ll hop us back a few months.”
They grumble a bit but soon enough she’s herding them back into the TARDIS. Ryan’s last to go in and she catches his arm as he passes her to get to the door. “Be careful.”
He’s confused. “With what?”
“Everything.” She nods and then follows him into the ship, slamming the door behind her to keep out anything that might want to drag them back to what happened last time.
The big red button is still there the next day. And the next day, and the next, and the one after that. The Doctor stares at it until she stops seeing it and just gets used to reaching past it to turn on the stabilisers. It probably doesn’t even work any more, it’s just a fancy Fast Return Switch anyway. She’s ready to move on and forget the thing ever happened.
Then Yaz finds the photograph.
The Doctor looks up from her work on the temporal-gyroscope. Yaz is holding a copy of The Time-Traveller’s Wife and a photo that the Doctor remembers using as a bookmark because she used to be really into terrible puns.
“That’s my wife.” As soon as the words are out of her mouth she wishes she had lied instead.
Yaz’s eyes widen. “Your what?”
“Wife,” says the Doctor, tightly, determined to leave the topic as quickly as possible. “Put the picture back in the book, it’s keeping my place.”
“You’ve got a wife?”
“No,” she says, suddenly tired, “I had a wife.” She holds her hand out. “Give it here.”
Yaz seems reluctant to had over her prizes, but she does it anyway. The Doctor slips the items into her coat pocket and turns back to her repairs.
“You’ve never mentioned her,” says Yaz, a barely-perceptible nervous tremor in her voice. “You don’t really mention anyone. But there must have been other people before us. All those clothes in the wardrobe room, and -”
“Yaz, I’m busy.”
“You’re always busy.” Yaz gestures around the console room. “You’re always fixing this thing, like you need something to do so we leave you in peace.” She sounds annoyed now, she’s looking a bit flushed.
“It’s called maintenance, if I don’t do it we all die.”
Yaz crosses her arms, defensive. “I’m sure you don’t have to do it constantly.”
“Actually, I do.” She knows she sounds irritated, but she’s past caring.
“How are we supposed to trust you when you never tell us anything about yourself?” Yaz sounds plaintive now, and the Doctor feels a stab of guilt.
She says, “I’ve told you plenty.”
“You haven’t! You know all about us and we don’t even know your name!”
The Doctor acts without thinking, her left hand hitting that new red button almost before she realises that she’s moving. For a moment it seems like it did nothing, but then she looks up and Yaz has moved back to where she was a minute ago, holding a photograph and a paperback.
The Doctor weaves a new lie. “Don’t know, it was in that book when I got it. Came from a charity shop. Probably someone’s sister or their best friend.” She manages to sound unconcerned. “Put it back, though, it’s marking my place. And don’t tell me how the story ends, I hate spoilers.”
Yaz seems to accept this, sliding the photo back between the pages. She nods, goes back through the door on the far side of the room, presumably back to the ship’s library.
The Doctor leans heavily against the console and breathes.
The next thing she does is incredibly stupid.
She drops her companions off at their homes then takes the TARDIS to her own home, or at least to what’s left of it. If rewriting her past is now an option then she has to try this. She is, after all, very much invested in hope. She parks the TARDIS on a hillside and hits the reset button. Then she stands at the console for a full six minutes, staring at the doors and trying to convince herself to walk over to them and look outside.
When she does open the door she gives Gallifrey no more than a glance before slamming the TARDIS shut again and walking back to the controls. Hits the button again.
Door, console, door, console, over and over and now she’s lost count. How long has she been here, trying to undo the Master’s handiwork? Ten minutes? An hour? Longer? She can’t just give up, that wouldn’t be kind and hopeful and optimistic and all the other things that she tries so very hard to be. Maybe the button will break eventually and then she can stop.
The Doctor breaks first, and then her hand breaks on the crystal pillar nearest the door, leaving the glowing crystal pristine and her own hand bloody. She sinks down the floor, her legs refusing to support her. She feels the edge of the console digging into her back, unyielding. She doesn’t cry.
Hope was a terrible thing and she’s grateful that she’s lost it.
The Doctor experiments.
There seems to be a hard limit of fifty-seven hours when it comes to rewriting the past. She discovers this by picking fights and then trying to prevent them. Since this amounts to human experimentation her method is deeply unethical, but she justifies the work with the thought of all the people she can save when she knows what the new rules are.
Nobody else seems to be aware of what’s unhappened, but a surreptitious scan after a reset reveals that Graham is seventeen hours younger than he was five minutes ago. Broken objects are repaired (or, more precisely, are simply unbroken) and entropy seems to act the way it should. The internal clocks on the TARDIS can take up to an hour to correct themselves, and for some reason the ketchup lever on the food machine is stuck (this may be unrelated, but she really likes ketchup and it’s never got stuck before).
The Doctor gets hungry and tired and all those other boring things, so the time has certainly passed more than once for her. Either she’s immune as a Time Lord or she’s just in the eye of the storm. No way to check that without assistance, so she leaves that mystery for now.
She gets used to pressing the button.
She runs into the one person who might be able to help, but he’s also the one person who absolutely shouldn’t know what she’s got.
“Does your TARDIS have a reset button?”
The Master looks blank. “A what?”
“Something that lets you try again. A second chance at things.”
Now he looks suspicious, “Does yours?”
“Course not, don’t be daft.” She shoves her hands into her pockets. “You think I’d be talking to you if I could rewrite my past?”
He stares at her, an intense scrutiny that stirs her guilt. “You’re older,” he says.
She raises her eyebrows and pretends to look impressed. “No wonder you got a first on the third year temporal mechanics course.”
“Not older than you were. Older than you should be.” He steps forwards, stops with his face just inches from hers. He closes his eyes and inhales. She stand perfectly still, as thought it might help to conceal what she’s done.
His eyes open. “Oh, Doctor, what have you been up to? All those extra days.”
The lie is instinctive: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He lifts a finger to her lips. “Don’t lie to me, not about something like this.” He strokes her cheek and she ducks away from his touch. He grins. “You’re beautiful when you’re being corrupted.”
She glares. “Shut up.”
“Let me help.” He pushes her against the door of the TARDIS and before she can react he has kissed her. She lets her guard down and responds, lifting her hands to tangle her fingers in his too-short hair. In a moment they are pressed together against the hull of the ship, his hands at her ribcage and her legs up around him.
He says, “If this happens, it happens. No rewrites.”
“Don’t think it works on Time Lords anyway.”
“Good,” he says, and they don’t part again.
She pulls the sheets up over herself. “Get out.”
“You should talk to someone,” he says, watching her from the other side of the bed.
“‘Someone’ meaning you?”
“If you like.”
She turns away. “I told you to leave.”
She thinks he’s going to argue but he acquiesces. “Okay.” It’s almost disappointing.
It’s the first day in a week that she doesn’t replace with an altered version of history, and not just because she can’t.
Her phone goes ‘ping.’ A message from “O,” who she should have deleted from her contacts months ago.
I’m worried about you.
She types out a thoughtful and eloquent reply: Bollocks.
How many times have you gone over the same day?
Does it matter?
It must add up.
She blocks his number.
Yaz says “I want to go home.”
The Doctor looks up from the controls, eyes wide as adrenalin shoots through her brain. She fights her own reflexes and straightens up slowly, calmly. She asks, “Why?”
“Just feels like it’s time. I’ve got things to do back home. I miss my family.”
The Doctor nods, these are all very good reasons to leave the TARDIS. She finally notices how tired Yaz looks – how many times has Yaz lived through the same day without even knowing about it?
Let her go, she’s been through enough. But these days the Doctor doesn’t have to listen to reason.
She presses the button and talks Yaz into staying on the seventeenth attempt.
Then she unblocks O.
“Where did it come from?” she asks, which is the question she’s been avoiding for months.
The Master shrugs. “Don’t look at me.”
She lowers her voice, discreet. “Do you think my TARDIS is getting strange in her old age?”
“It was always strange,” he says at normal volume.
“Alright then stranger.”
He leans against a pillar. “What did you use it for the first time?”
“Ryan got killed. I had to go back and save him.”
The Master shrugs. “Then that’s what it’s for.”
“So why is it still here?”
“Doctor, your TARDIS is what is known in the industry as ‘a crapped-out piece of shit,’ you can’t rely on a machine like this to see time the way it should.”
She’s offended on her ship’s behalf, but she can’t deny that – descriptive language aside – he’s right. She bites at her thumbnail. “What would you do?”
“Take over the universe.”
“So am I.” He gestures towards the controls. “Think about what you’ve got here. You never have to make a mistake again.”
She shakes her head. “I’ve more mistakes than I can count since that thing appeared.”
“What’s he doing here?” The Doctor turns around and sees Yaz staring at them from the other side of the room.
“Technical Support,” says the Doctor.
“We’re having a sordid affair,” says the Master.
Yaz looks from one to the other, even though she should know which of them to believe. Maybe distrust lingers after all.
The Doctor glares at the Master, who shrugs. “So? You can just fix it so she never asked.”
Yaz walks up the steps to the console. “Doctor, what’s going on?”
The Doctor glances at the controls automatically, tempted to take the easiest way out of this conversation, and the Master laughs.
“Oh, go on,” he coaxes, “do it. No, hang on, let me kill her first. Doesn’t count if it doesn’t stick, right?”
The Doctor turns to look at him. “Thanks.”
“For being worse than I am,” she says, and pulls the sonic screwdriver from her pocket.
He tries to stop her but she’s always been faster. She picks the most violent setting and points the screwdriver at the reset button.
The explosion is disappointingly small.
She doesn’t tell her friends the truth. Or rather, she doesn’t tell them the entire truth. As far as they’re concerned the Doctor spent a couple of days being seduced by possibility and quickly saw the error of her ways. Goodness wins again and temptation is defeated, all in a few days’ work. The Doctor tells herself that what they don’t know can’t hurt them, which is her usual position on such personal matters.
She still doesn’t know why the reset button was there in the first place. Maybe it was an echo from another reality. Maybe even-more-advanced aliens were testing her. Maybe the TARDIS just really likes Ryan.
Anyway, it’s fine now, no real harm done.
She taps at her phone. Do you think I’m a good person? Deep down?
O is typing…
- - - - -