There was a flurry of COPs flapping up and down in the air, and the balloon hung giant and orange before the Doctor. Like the planet Gallifrey, hanging in the sky— coming to the end of a world, to wait, and watch. Although the true reason it was here was very different, of course. The Time Lords had always known a thing or two about disguise.
There was someone standing in the basket of the balloon, illuminated by the thick blue flame behind him. A short, portly man with a jolly face, although his expression wasn’t jolly at all. Instead, it was like jolliness would just keep spilling out of him, whether he would want it to or not.
“Well,” that man said, shouting over as her COP drew towards the balloon. “Would you look at that. Who’re you, then?”
The Porter had known the Doctor on sight. But this person didn’t, although surely he must be an ally. Some things were still confidential, then, even in this organisation full of secrets. Lies upon lies, spiralling all the way down.
“I’m a friend,” said the Doctor. “And I’m guessing you must be a Time Lord.”
The man smiled sadly.
“Regrettably,” he said. “I’m Maltimundar; this is my TARDIS. And you’d best jump in.”
The Doctor laughed.
“You don’t need to tell me it’s bigger on the inside!” she said, swinging herself into the balloon’s basket with a thunk.
“Well, it’s not,” said Maltimundar. “It’s a 30.3. None of those new-fangled Type 40s for us! No transcendental dimensions. Or heating, really. The Division’s running on fumes.”
He was telling the truth, the Doctor knew. It wasn’t just his TARDIS that showed it. The Division had sent the Porter, and they’d given him backup. But there wasn’t an army to support him, or even a legion. Only a single man.
“It doesn’t matter how big it is,” she said. “I’d say it’s your hospitality that matters, never the size of your home. And you seem to have a lot of it, Maltimundar. Seeing as you have no idea who I am.”
He looked at her sincerely, still jolly on the surface, the weight of something massive in his eyes.
“I suspected that someone would be coming,” he said, after hesitating. “And I imagine you’ll have something to show me.”
Their eyes met, and she saw his change as she held up the CULLIS. There had been a gleam in them, and now it had gone.
“The Porter,” he said. “She finally got him, then.”
“Yeah,” said the Doctor softly. “I thought you’d seen it coming.”
The Porter sighed. He looked slumped and tiny, shadowed against the flame of his balloon.
“Of course. But I’m only feeling it now. I never really believed someone like him was capable of dying. There’s no saving us if we lose the Earth as well.”
He doesn’t know what you know, whispered the Doctor’s mind. You can turn this into a chance to find out more.
“Forgive me,” she said. “But averting a war like this. Everything I’ve heard of your people”—
“Oh, it was true, for most of us,” said Maltimundar. “It was true of me. ’You can’t change history!’ We’re taught the logic behind it, if not whose logic it is. But the Reign used to understand there were exceptions. Wounds that ran too deep to heal.”
“But not anymore,” said the Doctor.
“No,” said Maltimundar. “She grew stubborn in her principles; that made me start to question them. And I began to think— that perhaps what she was doing wasn’t really healing at all.”
“So you’re a rebel Time Lord?” said the Doctor, smiling to herself.
Maltimundar laughed out loud.
“Who isn’t, these days?” he said. “There are a few who keep on being loyal. The true believers. But we know, most of us, that something’s gone deeply wrong. We’ve come to say that you’re not a true Time Lord, unless there’s some part of you that wants to run.”
The air was cold despite the roaring blue flame. Beneath them and far below, the lights of London wore on. Maltimundar looked down at them now, like he was examining something strange and impossible.
“Time and space seem greyer, nowadays,” he said, softly. “Like something within them’s gone, and drained away. The universe needs something to hold onto. It needs”—
“A figurehead?” said the Doctor.
Maltimundar laughed even more loudly than before.
“Oh, heavens no!” he said. “We’ve had our fill of those.”
He gestured down at London as it glittered below.
“I’m talking about this,” he said.
The Doctor looked down too. At the doomed lights, quietly living away.
“They’re telling stories out there now, of the planet Earth,” said Maltimundar. “At the darkest times worlds face, it lets them know. That there was a place which fate just couldn’t beat. There was a distant planet that survived.”
Maltimundar waved his hand absently at the world below, and sighed.
“It’s not only the alien invasions,” he said. “You could strip them out, have them never happen at all. A species like this, with weapons of this magnitude. It shouldn’t endure. They don’t endure, not anywhere else in the universe. But here? Here something seems to have happened.”
He shook his head.
“Every serious study we’ve done,” said Maltimundar. “Even that they’ve done! It’s always the same. Humanity shouldn’t even have made it this far. But somehow they do, and go much further. Further than they’ve any right to. And”—
“She knows that’s not really how it happens,” said the Doctor.
“She’s looking for whoever’s responsible,” he said. To stop them before she has to face them. And we’ve been looking for them too, of course. Though none of us have managed.”
He turned to face the edge of the basket, so he wasn’t looking at her anymore.
“It’s you, though,” he said. “Isn’t it?”
The Doctor was still trying to look expressionless, but was no longer sure she was succeeding.
“What makes you say that?” she said.
“It makes sense that we’d never have found you,” said Maltimundar. “We’ve been looking for someone like she always fights. Another powerful person, ready to defend their world. Someone imposing, you know? Someone grand.”
“I am grand.”
“You’re wearing a pastel coat and dungarees.”
“I’m doing it grandly.”
Maltimundar nodded. “In a way? I suppose you are. Maybe someone that powerful would know when they shouldn’t be advertising it. And of course you’d also know when you probably should”—
He nodded to the CULLIS, clutched tight in the palm of her hand.
“There aren’t many people the Porter would have trusted with that,” he said. “Only someone he truly believed was willing to fight her.”
“You’re right,” she said, nodding. “Whatever else I am. I am definitely the kind of person who’d fight the Doctor.”
She gestured to her suspenders, to their gleaming rainbows.
“Maybe that’s why you should’ve looked for someone dressed like this,” she said. “It’d mean that they were mad enough to try.”
“Believe me,” he said. “The way things are going now. The mad ones are the ones who do nothing at all. To give the universe over to… to an avatar of fate, like her. You know, she likes to talk about hope, but I don’t think she even knows the meaning of the word”—
“And if you could tell her,” said the Doctor, cutting him off. “What would you say?”
Maltimundar looked startled, taken aback by the question. Eventually, he nodded at the CULLIS in her hands.
“It’s what the Porter said, whenI thought that victory here was impossible. It didn’t matter what I thought was impossible. Sometimes it would happen anyway.”
He looked the Doctor right in the eyes.
“We can’t let her win everywhere,” he said. “Especially if she must.”
An image flashed in front of the Doctor’s eyes. A shattered city, on a world which had totally died.
“Gallifrey burns,” she said, before she could stop herself.
“What?” said Maltimundar.
“I’m from your future, Maltimundar. By maybe a very long way. And where I’m from the Time Lords— you don’t feel anything anymore.”
Malimundar was silent for a moment, looking away.
“Good,” he said at last, kicking the side of the basket.
The Doctor stared at him.
“If we are to choose one species to spare from fate, it is right that it should never be our own,” he said. “It is true what the universe says about us. The Time Lords are monsters.”
“I think you’re a good man,” said the Doctor.
“Well,” said Maltimundar. “Maybe you can’t be one of those without knowing it: exactly the kind of monster that you are. Don’t you know what we did to the Doctor?”
“I’ve been studying up on it,” the Doctor said.
“She was a child and we put her in a cage. We experimented on her. Tortured her. And now her pain is etched within our genes. It’s in me, even now. It’s here.”
He patted his chest with a thump, and sagged visibly as he did. And she’d said she was so much more than him, hadn’t she, not so very long ago? The Master had slaughtered Maltimundar’s people as payment for what they’d once done to her. If he was here now, he’d throw this man off the balloon, stand there watching until the city burned…
Everything you knew was a lie, the Doctor thought. But that didn’t mean you could stop being true to your hearts.
“Look down there,” she said to Maltimundar. “At the city. Do you know what it’s done; what its country did? So many children were lost to build its streets. But you’ve come here to save it, haven’t you? You still think it’d be wrong to see it burn.”
He didn’t answer directly. He was looking at her so thoughtfully, like she was some kind of complicated equation. She saw him quantifying her, factoring things. Trying to uncover an answer.
“And what do you think?” he said carefully. “About the fate of this world we’ve both been fighting for?”
The Doctor paused at that, as well. They were playing a game on some level now, she knew too well. The world was a game, and it was a battlefield. As well as a billion children, burning the next afternoon.
“What I think,” she said. “It’s”— “When you know that you can be both. The child in the cage and the Lord who’s holding the keys. After that you don’t want to be seen as either. Just as a person. Because that’s what we are, whatever we’ve had done to us. Or done ourselves. What I think is that in the end”—
“Compassion has to be greater than judgment,” she said. “Or else there’s nothing.”
“Then you’ll be there tomorrow,” he said.
“I will,” said the Doctor.
“Then we’ll give you everything we can,” said Maltimundar, indicating the COPS flying by the balloon. “It isn’t much. But we’ll be there.”
The situation was hopeless, but his expression wasn’t. It looked every bit as jolly as his face always threatened to be.
“Why’re you smiling like that?” the Doctor said.
“Oh,” said Maltimundar. “Just thinking again, about how the impossible can happen. Because you’re the proof of that, in a way, aren’t you?”
She knew there was no point denying it. Her expression of shock had already given her away.
“How did you know?” she said.
“You’re not as good at hiding it as you think you are,” he said. “Whichever side of the battle you might be on.”
She nodded to herself.
“Tomorrow,” she said, by way of a goodbye. A COP was swooping down alongside her, and she clambered on.
“I’m sure I’ll see you there,” Maltimundar said.
He watched as she was carried away by the COP, until she was tiny, until she was gone.
And then he took a crumpled bit of paper from his pocket, unfolding it out on the basket base. A sheet with a hundred questions on it, cascading in a spider out of the mindmap he’d drawn. Who was saving this world, and who could stop the missiles. Who might have the guts to stand up to the Timeless Reign.
So many questions, and he’d had none of the answers. In the centre of them all one lonely question: WHO?
He looked at it for a while, smiling to himself.
And just above it, he wrote a single word.