If she was given to awarding universes marks out of ten — and Rassilon knew, she’d been crushingly bored enough times in the last six or seven hundred universes to divert herself with even something as trivial as that — this one would be a seven. Seven and a half, if she was generous and overlooked the global warming and the fact that they were clearly recovering from some global disaster. The air was breathable, the gravity Gallifrey-normal and she managed all of twenty minutes freedom before being arrested as a hostile alien menace.
True, that was because she had had the bad luck to materialise from her dimension jump right inside the planet’s primary alien defence facility, but that sort of thing happened to Romana with a wearying regularity. Somehow, even centuries since she had last seen him, she was sure this was the Doctor’s fault.
The two male humans behind the desk eyed her. Romana folded her hands in her lap and smiled, just in case she had been giving off the impression of an imminent world domination attempt. You could never be too careful with primitive species. Look them in the eye, her exosociology tutor at the Academy had always said. Smile, make no sudden movements, and under no circumstances muck around with their timelines because you think it’d be funny. They were words she tried to live by.
One of them cleared his throat. “Right,” he said, and picked up a stack of papers, and put it down, and lifted it again. “Right, so. What’s your name?”
“What Mickey means to say,” the other one cut in, “is that there’s a process for aliens we pick up on Earth. Sort of an immigration thing. A form and that.”
“How very sensible.”
“Except you’re our first one. So we haven’t done it before.”
“All right.” She waited. They waited. “Do you want me to start?” she asked. “Oh, my name. Romanadvoratrelundar.” She had seen that look of dismay on the faces of clerks across the galaxy. “Just Romana,” she added, taking pity on the one called Mickey, who had found the right form and a pen and was doing his best to put the two together.
“I’m Jake, by the way. Dunno if I said. Sorry.”
She studied the two of them and repeated the names to herself, determined to remember which was which. “Hello, Jake. Have you been working for an anti-alien agency long?”
“We’re not anti-alien,” the two men chorused dully, “we’re pro-human.”
“One of Pete’s slogans,” Jake said. “We’ve only got to listen to it eight or nine million times a day.”
“It’s not like he’s even met aliens,” Mickey complained. “I’ve met Slitheen and Sycorax and everything, and I don’t go round making up slogans about it.”
Sycorax rang a distant bell, possibly from one of those very same exosociology lectures. She almost looked down to ask K-9 before she remembered that K-9 was gone now, had been gone for years.
“Do you think we might hurry up this bureaucratic nonsense?” she asked, cutting across the two humans’ argument about Pete, whoever he was. “Because I have an awful lot more places to see, probably, and a surprisingly high percentage of them contain pro-human organisations that want to lock me up and ask a lot of silly questions, so if we could get on…”
“Sorry,” Mickey said, and she gave his universe another half-point just because he seemed to mean it. “Next question: ‘What is the purpose of your visit to Earth?’ “
He blinked. “You’re on holiday?”
“You should try Paris,” Jake put in. “We went there about two years ago. Nice place, apart from the Cybermen, and they’ve all vanished somewhere anyway.”
“Oh, did you see the Mona Lisa?” She was about to point out the most important thing about the picture — namely eyebrows, lack thereof - but Mickey had dropped his pen and was staring at her in quite a disconcerting way.
“I think we had coffee there,” Jake said. “Is it the place by the… all right, stop kicking me, Mickey, what do you want?”
“Break,” he said, springing to his feet, “back in ten minutes. Got to talk to Jake. Outside. I’ll bring you a tea or something. Sugar?”
“Two, please. No lumps.”
Left alone, she spent a few minutes filling in the questionnaire (‘On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest, how would you rate your desire to perform medical experiments on human beings?’ She circled 6) and then sidled to the door. They had closed it but were talking in low voices no more than a few feet away, allowing her to hear every word.
If this was the pinnacle of this Earth’s security, they were doomed. Then again, perhaps they were lucky and this universe didn’t have Daleks. She hadn’t found Daleks anywhere; as if, like Time Lords, they were unique to a single universe and wouldn’t have evolved in any other. Some sort of co-evolution between their two species? There could be a paper in that when she got home.
“So she knows the name of some painting,” Jake was saying. “That doesn’t mean she’s from your universe.”
“But she might be. She might know a way back. That thing we took from round her neck, they’ve got it down in R&D and it might be, I dunno, a Stargate or something, and we could use it to jump back to my world.”
“Do you want to go back?”
“…no. Course I don’t. Look, you know I don’t, but if we could get in touch with…”
“I’m telling you, he can’t help us, man.”
“Mickey, he’s not Superman, for God’s sake. He’s not even, like, Jesus. He can’t swoop in and save the whole world. And what about Romana?”
Yes, Romana thought, what about me? She hoped, rather guiltily, that she was going to be allowed to collected her dimension-hopper and slink off across the weak points of the Void without having to save this world or any others. There had been the Tharils and the Lasi and the Oist and thousands of others, and after that she had started calling herself a tourist in the hope that the world-saving would go on without her. Sorry, just passing through.
She heard Mickey say that they should try and help her; that he felt sorry for her, that she might be from his universe, and even if she wasn’t — “She’s all on her own, isn’t she?”
A sigh. “Mickey, you can’t go inviting aliens to tea at your nan’s because you think they look a bit lonely. God help us if the invasion fleet lands when we haven’t got the milk in.”
She back to her chair and sat down. All on her own. Who was it had said humans had the perceptive ability of underachieving protozoa? Oh, that exosociology tutor again. No wonder she’d forgotten the woman’s name, she clearly didn’t know her stuff.
“Romana,” Mickey said, popping his head around the door, “I’ll get you that tea, if you want it.”
“Thank you,” she said, and when he didn’t go away, “Was there something else?”
“On the form — we never asked about species.”
“Yes,” she said, “I did think that was the first thing you should ask.”
“It was Pete made them up. He always leaves something out. Don’t ask me how he made his millions.” He looked straight at her. “You’re a Time Lord, though, right?” Maybe she nodded. “I’ll write it in when I get back. Two sugars, was it?”
She wondered where Jake had gone — to fetch the infamous Pete, who seemed to be in charge, to turn over their alien prisoner? She wondered if Mickey expected to find her gone, since he’d made a point of leaving the door ajar.
She reached into her pocket and brought out the back-up dimensional hopper, the one that had belonged to K-9. Responsible for a whole planet’s security, she thought, and they couldn’t have a proper secret conversation and they couldn’t remember to search prisoners.
For a moment she closed her eyes and held her hand over the large yellow button, letting the Void seep into her mind, feeling out the fractures and the soft places and squashing that ever-more insistent voice that asked why it was so still, why she couldn’t find the bright flare of her people that would lead her home in one jump.
Romana brought her hand down, and all at once she was somewhere else.
She hoped, as she opened her eyes to the dusty ground and red sky, that it would be a nice place to rest for a while.