Tense discussions and troop movements. Battleships moving into position. On the surface the newsreader on the radio was unflapppable, recounting the story that might kill him as if there wasn’t any reason to find it interesting. But beneath the crackle of the airwaves there was a strange weight in his voice. A gravity. It felt like events were pulling the world into a black hole, and now they were pulling his words into them too.
Yaz clinked her knife against her plate, uncomfortably. She looked at Judith, then at the Doctor. None of them were saying anything. Judith had hardly eaten, and the Doctor was stuffing beef into her mouth with her hands.
“I’ll get that radio off,” said Judith quietly. “It’ll be putting us off our dinner.”
Yaz looked down at her food again as Judith got to her feet. Beef and peas. Carrots boiled and pale. Stiff gravy solid, a film over the best china. It almost certainly wasn’t Halal, but she didn’t feel comfortable saying anything. She’d already sat awkwardly when Judith had started to say grace, not knowing whether she should mouth along with the words.
The silence kept on going with the radio off, now even more uncomfortably. Judith’s knife scraped down against her plate as she cut her beef very precisely.
“I’m sorry,” Judith said. “I know I’m not being much of a host. There’s a lot on my mind at the minute. What with— what with everything.”
“She’ll tell you not to worry in a second,” Yaz muttered, gesturing at the Doctor with her fork.
“‘Cause it’s going to be fine”, said the Doctor, without looking up.
“You seem very confident of it,” said Judith. “Are you”—
She flinched suddenly and stopped talking.
“We’re not military,” said the Doctor.
“I didn’t say you were.”
“But you thought it. You stopped talking because you suddenly thought that knowing might get you into trouble.”
Judith looked oddly at her, fork halfway to mouth.
“Then what are you?” she said.
The Doctor sighed and furrowed her brow.
“It’s an interesting question,” she said. “The fact of it is”—
“We’re time travellers,” said Yaz.
“What’s the point in hiding it? She’s an alien and I’m from 2020,” she said to Judith apologetically. “I know it’s a lot to take in.”
Yaz wasn’t sure she’d have said that back when Ryan and Graham had been around. But now, her world contained so much more. Pandemics and nuclear weapons. The deaths of people because they weren’t the right kind of people, in the past and the present and maybe the future as well. Once, she’d told Ryan that maybe things always got better. But the Doctor had known they wouldn’t, and she’d never said.
Judith was shaking her head. “Time travellers?” she said. “That can’t be true.”
“The universe is big enough for it,” said the Doctor.
“Not that,” said Judith. “It’s”—
She stared down at her plate.
“There won’t be any world in 2020,” she said, very quietly.
“There is,” said Yaz. “I mean, it’s not doing great. But it’s there.”
“You’re telling me you’re from a city on the Moon?”
“I’m from Sheffield,” said Yaz. “About as much life there.”
Judith shook her head.
“Sheffield won’t be there next month, let alone next century,” she said. “You can’t convince me this isn’t the big one.”
“It isn’t,” muttered the Doctor with a mouth full of peas.
“I’ve always said it,” said Judith, finally coming out of her shell. “All this space age rubbish. It’s to cover up what the future really is. Rockets carrying us to the stars, when really they’ll be launching bombs to our houses! It’s all about war, when you scratch a bit under the surface. And we’re overdue another one.”
“It’s hard to see the point, in a world like this,” she said. “To keep on going.”
“And you find it hard?” said Yaz. “To live in the world.”
There was no response. Yaz recognised the look in Judith’s face, the effort it took to hold the emotion in. She’d seen it too much, with the Doctor, in the force.
“Judith,” she said firmly. “You’ll be okay, yeah? Okay in yourself. Whatever happens.”
She smiled, as genuinely as she could.
“It’s not so great in my time, either,” she said. “I mean, it’s not this bad. Maybe it sometimes feels like it. There’s a virus, spreading across the world. She won’t even tell me when it’ll end,” she added, pointing her thumb at the Doctor. “But”—
“I know,” said Judith softly. “I know.”
They were all silent again.
“Sometimes it seems like the only way out is killing yourself,” Judith said. “But you have to go on.”
Yaz tried not to let the worry show on her face. Internally, she took a very deep breath.
“There’s hope, Judith,” she said. “Not just that you’ll get through this. We met Rosa Parks, in 1955. People like her, they change the world. They make things better”—
She’d said something like that to Ryan, when they’d been there in 1955. He’d not looked convinced way back then, and Judith seemed similar now. But as she said it again Yaz felt how much she’d changed, how her own belief in the future had been shaken. She hadn’t known what was coming just down the road. How much fighting they all had still to do.
Judith fidgeted with her fingers uncomfortably.
“It’s terrible,” she said. “But sometimes… when I think of people doing astounding things. Changing the world, like you said. It makes me think that I’ll never do anything like that.”
“A lot of the people who did once thought the same,” said the Doctor.
“I want to make a difference,” Judith said. “But sometimes I find myself hating the people who do. Like Doctor Clayton.”
The Doctor and Yaz flashed a look at each other.
“Doctor Clayton,” the Doctor said.
“At the hospital,” Judith said. “She’s a woman and she’s black, and she’s a doctor, too. Imagine it! There was a newspaper article about her, what she’s achieved. But you know she’ll never let you forget it. And you think, she’s managed that, and it’s all I’m doing to keep going!“
She stopped briefly, and when she started talking again there was a bitter edge in her voice.
“She doesn’t get half of the stick the rest of us do. People refuse to be seen by us, by the black nurses. No one’d ever dream of refusing her. And they talk about people like Rosa, when they talk to her. Say that they’re very good examples.”
“You don’t want that,” said Yaz.
“That isn’t the point,” Judith said. “It all makes you feel less than human.”
That might be ironic, Yaz thought, if Doctor Clayton was who she sounded like.
“It’s horrible when people look down on you,” said the Doctor carefully. “And what makes it really bad, it’s when they’re peering down at you from their glasses, looking disapproving.”
“She does do that!” Judith said.
The Doctor threw down her fork. “She’s me,” she said.
Judith boggled at her.
“I’ve changed a bit since then,” said the Doctor apologetically.
“She’s an alien,” said Yaz. “She does alien things. Like changing bodies.”
“That’s how you know everything’s fine!” said Judith excitedly. “Because you remember being her”—
“Not exactly,” said the Doctor. “I don’t know much about this version of me. Not even what she’s doing here. I don’t remember.”
She looked at Judith determinedly.
“So I’ll have to find out,” she said.
“Oh,” said Judith. “But you won’t mention me, right? Only I don’t want any bother. Not with everything that’s going on.”
“I won’t,” said the Doctor. “But trust me, Judith,” she added wearily. “I’m worried the bother might only just be beginning.”