It was an extraordinary accident, and no one ever found out the reason for it. Timeslips did sometimes occur in the archives—it was inevitable with the sort of material there—and since the doors and lights had also gone out, some system must have simply been out of balance. The President never told anyone just what had made it such a remarkable afternoon, and if she thought the word “destiny” once or twice, well, that was her own highly unscientific business.
The story which she never told anyone—which she was never entirely sure had really happened—was this.
Romana went down to the archives herself, muttering her frustration with bureaucratic stonewalling. The long rows of shelves, each neatly packed in an efficient hexagonal pattern with cryptically labeled data cores, were arranged in a pattern so rational that no one but a trained archivist could follow it. She knew something about the archives but it had been years, so as she traced her way to the records she needed, she tried to imagine that she was taking a leisurely stroll somewhere beautiful. She turned into a small annex room, and without warning the fire door slammed shut behind her.
A distant alarm cut off quickly, so despite the worst-case scenarios floating in the back of her mind, she concluded that it was most likely nothing more than a power fault. “It’ll be over in microspans,” she said to herself.
“Who’s there?” demanded a sharp voice from the other side of the shelves that divided the annex room. It sounded like a young man’s voice, without the edge of experience that older people got who regenerated into younger bodies, but with an old-fashioned intonation that Romana associated with a generation older than herself.
“Nobody,” she said, suddenly on edge again.
“One of the famous archive ghosts, I suppose?” said the voice. “That figures. This is Gallifrey. Even our myths are empirically documented.”
“Don’t be silly,” she snapped, preferring anger to that odd tension. “I was fetching some reference materials.”
“You aren’t an archivist, are you?”
“No—picking up things for the High Council,” she said, which had the merit of being technically true.
“Welcome, dear Madame Aide,” he said ironically.
“Are you an archivist, then?” she inquired.
“I’m working in the archives for a few years. Just to get experience, you know. I’m going to do bigger and better things.”
“Good for you,” she said. “I’m tired of talking to a voice in the dark. Come over here.”
He did so, navigating around an unexpected rolling stool, and in the faint gleam of the red system status light in the corner she could just make out his figure: wiry, a little taller than herself, wearing what seemed to be the practical robes appropriate to the age and status he claimed. Probably not a secret assassin, then. Self-conscious, and aware of the absurdity of the action, she adjusted her hair and collar.
“What’s your name?” she said, just to be courteous.
He told her, and she was shocked silent for a moment.
“What’s wrong?” he snapped. “Not good enough for you?”
“No—no,” she said. “Let’s not quarrel. No, it’s just—you ought to know. I think we might be in a timeslip.”
“What makes you say that?” he asked. “Wait—am I famous in the future? That’s it!” he cried when she didn’t reply. “Admit it, I’m famous in the future. Are you meeting a hero of Gallifrey?”
“No,” she said, irritated by his cockiness despite its obvious edge of pure amusement. “And you know I couldn’t tell you anyway.”
She lowered herself to the dusty floor, not quite trusting her balance. Loneliness and nostalgia and grief and anger flooded through her in a chaotic mixture, leaving her shaking.
“Don’t tell me I’m infamous,” said the young man who would be the Doctor.
“Oh yes,” she said, knowing he wouldn’t believe her. “Criminal record as long as my arm.”
He sat down next to her, moving through the darkness with surprising care. She imagined that heartbreaking, schoolboyish half-grin and wondered if he’d developed it yet.
“How long’s your arm?” he asked, and reached out for her as if to compare.
She let him take her arm and spread out his fingers against hers, his elbow bumping hers through their robes. She kept her psychic shields well up. It wouldn’t do for the Doctor, of all people, to know his—their—no, his future.
Or would it? Could she come up with just the right thing to say, the right hint to drop? Something that wouldn’t prevent him running away, wouldn’t prevent them meeting, but would forestall that wretched nightmarish melodrama, coming when she thought they’d grown apart, that had separated them so much more finally than she’d known was possible?
No, she scolded herself. Be sensible. You can’t undo what you’ve lived through—here, in the archives, least of all. People lose people, it happens. You have to live with it. And what if you interfered and made things worse? She would rather—and she knew the Doctor would too—that he was lost forever than that that creature—
“Are you alright?” asked her young companion.
She caught her breath, forcing everything back down. “Just thinking,” she said. “Could you—would you mind if I held your hand?”
“Scared of the dark?” he said, but he let her take it.
Neither of them said much else. He was just waiting for the timeslip to be over, it seemed, occasionally rubbing her knuckles absentmindedly with his thumb. She was waiting for that too, but with every nerve strained to breaking. She wanted this strange, unlikely moment never to end, yet somehow she longed for the end, just so she would know what to feel again.
“You’re too young for me now. Isn’t that funny,” she said.
“What?” he said. But she hadn’t meant him to understand.
Then the lights flicked on and the timestreams shifted and he was gone forever, again.