It’s too cold.
This is just one of the many signs reminding Yaz that everything is going wrong. The TARDIS generally keeps the temperature even, and matches itself politely to whatever its passengers are wearing, tailor-tweaking the nerve endings of each warm body. But now it’s cold – and the lights tend slowly toward blue as the floor tilts downward in a gentle corkscrew, as if drooping. Yaz shoves her palms under her arms and tries to keep her balance on the descent. Dan’s all taken care of, meaning that Yaz steered him well clear of the Doctor, past her brooding self-importance and right through to the kitchens. Lopsided and leaking in places, but functional.
Sure, Yaz did it for the Doctor’s sake. She’s busy, as always, and more than a little wound up. Fighting off threats she seems determined to deal with alone. But mostly it was for Dan’s sake, because he can’t see how close the Doctor is to the end of her fraying tether. The ever-encroaching point at which she draws the line. He’s new, and may well be sticking around for a while. He will have to learn, but not today. Later, she will explain everything.
Yaz stops in front of a door she has already walked past. A silver door lathered in deepening blues, curved like the surface of a cylinder. Yaz keeps walking, and the air grows colder.
The floor slopes with purpose, steepening to a sheer round drop. Yaz keeps one hand pressed upon the humming wall and follows it down. A Möbius strip; it loops back around to the door again. A black droplet splats gritty and warm against her outstretched arm. The ceiling seams are leaking treacle. Sometimes the ship plays games with its passengers, getting them back for dripping drinks on the carpets or leaving biscuit crumbs on the console by leading them into a swamp or a waste deck or a primary school classroom. Sometimes the corridors shrink when the Doctor isn’t paying attention, or redden when she’s in a mood. But these changes – the blurring of angles and bruising of light – have no purpose to them, no intent. The ship is ill, or broken, depending on how closely Yaz follows the Doctor’s penchant for personification. It is bleeding, and even a silly human like Yaz can figure out why: Time is breaking. Time has a capital letter, as she discovered in its diminutive storm, and the ship doesn’t like it. It’s like a car driving over a cracked, on-fire road.
Yaz feels a little muddled, but she’s too angry to let it bother her. Muddled, by the torrent of fragmentary memories. Pieces of her own life jumbled up all wrong, and other lives as well. Pilots and plasterers and physicians and psychics. As her thoughts wander this way, in four directions outward from herself, Yaz grounds herself in her anger. It serves as a decent anchor, for her trailing thread of consciousness.
She walks on, but the path only tightens. She can spot her own jacket sleeve and the flash of a dark boot retreating, upside-down and ahead, when she walks forwards. Her braid is a mess.
From far behind and beyond her spatial loop, Yaz hears a yell. Frustrated, strangled, desperate. A mallet strike. The ship whimpers.
Yaz’s hand, without her careful supervision, has wandered over to the repeating door and its convex silver face. She thinks, in a voice that is not her own, and with a snarl, show me the rest.
Yaz sits in her front room – which is also the lounge room, and the dining room, and sort of the kitchen as well, as modernity dictates. No wonder she can never catch a break. She taps her nails on the dining table in a steady, circular cascade, humming to herself. The house is quiet now. Everyone else is gone. They have left, or been sent away, or taken. Taken and put right back where they belong.
But they’ll be alright. Perhaps it’s for the best.
She shouldn’t have meddled.
There’s someone knocking at the door, but Yaz really doesn’t feel like answering it. She has been quite enjoying shirking her duties. Duty! What a joke! As if anyone could do any real good wrapped up in all that red tape, drowning under a fathoms-deep electronic filing cabinet worth of bureaucratic excrement. The phone rings, and she ignores that too.
It was always going to come to this, eventually, but her wonderfully vivid delusions kept it at bay as a mere hypothetical. Chronic procrastinator. She’s been knocking about, travelling – having experiences of a lifetime. This is what she set out to do, what she always wanted. To help people, to right wrongs, to do more.
It is becoming difficult to circumvent the constant enquiries of her employers. There are only so many secondments she can take.
The knocking turns to rapping, which switches right onto banging and thumping with frankly not enough of an interval in between. Desperate, aren’t they, to have their best probationary officer back? Never did formally complete her training.
Reluctantly, Yaz stands, and then stops. Dizzy spell, her posture slants. The clock is wrong, too, the second hand ticking back and forth, back and forth, jammed halfway between two and three.
She calls out, “Why can't you leave me alone?” The next thump becomes a crash, and the door shudders, bleeding grey daylight at the seams. “I haven't done any harm,” Yaz mutters, belligerent. She opens the door.
Sergeant Sunder stands alongside Lucy Woods. Her old boss and her old partner. Both are sombre and expressionless, their features shadowed in foreboding and lit somehow from below, from the cement pavers.
The other side of the door is scuffed, the white plaster chipped away to reveal dark blue wood.
“There is no escape,” Sunder says. His features spasm and settle into a weary smile. The light is gone. The wood is brown. “Alright Yaz?” he says.
“Err, yeah.” She folds her arms and tries her best to look put-together. “What are you doing making house calls?”
“We were just passing by this way,” says Lucy, smiling in a suspicious manner. For a police officer, Woods always had a lousy poker face. Never could keep her mouth shut either. “Actually, no. That’s totally a lie. Why’ve you been avoiding our calls? Well, my calls, then I had to escalate it because come on Yaz! It’s been months! And I thought, sure, her secondment’s been extended and the paperwork didn’t get sent through properly, that’s what I told old Sunny over here” – she nudges the Sergeant. It is only when Yaz focuses her attention back on him that his expression loosens and his vest re-colours itself, from black to vivid green. “But I couldn’t cover for you forever, girl. And Nate saw you wandering about town weeks ago. What’ve you been up to? We’ve been trying to reach you! Well, anyway, doesn’t matter now does it?” Lucy’s lips twitch over her teeth into a toothy grin, that after an instant nestles into a harsh, flat line. “You have returned to us. Your travels are over.”
“Yes, well. Thanks Woods.” Sunder rolls his eyes and casts Yaz a knowing look. “So much for subtle,” he mutters, then clears his throat. “But Yaz, it’s just that you're still contracted at the station. We’ve had to suspend your system access but there’s only so long we can put off terminating your contract altogether. I’m guessing the new assignment didn’t work out.” Sunder winks at her meaningfully.
“I was just…” Yaz struggles to find a nice word for slacking off.
“Skiving?” Lucy offers. “Never thought I’d see you go off the rails, you were such a hardass.”
“What she means is you were my best officer, Yaz. So much promise!”
“I just, I don’t think.” Yaz sighs. “I’ve been busy.” Anger rises in her throat, and she can’t quite trace its source. The door has something to do with it, and the stalling clock, the empty house. The ceiling is growing taller and fading up into an indifferent, rippling black. She doesn’t remember Woods and Sunder coming inside, but they are waiting when she turns, behind her. The clock multiplies; round grey fixtures spotting up and across the walls, ticking to and fro. Two and three.
Yaz puffs out her chest and warps her features into furious indignation. It sits stiff and wrong on her face, like a plaster mold. “I’ve been busy, you know, actually helping people. Not just standing about and handing out parking tickets and driving to house parties when the music gets too loud and holding drunk kids in cells overnight. I mean, with everything that’s going on in the world – that you’re facilitating standing around in your stupid hats – we can do more. I have done more.” She pulls herself up to her full height, which isn’t much. “While you have been content merely to observe the evil in the galaxy, I have been fighting against it!”
Woods and Sunder are standing on her living room furniture, all the better to bear down.
“Is that all you have to say?” asks Sunder, his face in shadow and his vest leeched once more to sheer black. His robes are white.
Exasperated, Yaz cries, “Well, isn't it enough?”
Dan appears on the coffee table holding a can of soup. He looks appropriately confused. “Yaz! Where am I?” he exclaims, then falls silent as his expression turns grave. The soup can drops from his hands and rolls mournfully across the linoleum. His voice is low and expressionless. “Your defence has been heard.”
“ We have accepted your plea,” says Sunder, from his dark plinth. The clock faces close, like grey lids over twitching glass eyes.
“You still have a part to play in this battle,” says Lucy, whose black cape hangs lank and motionless. A light bears down from above. The kitchen fixture, brightened to a mottled haze that punctures her thoughts.
“You will be recalled,” says Dan. His face is cracked down the middle.
The light sears through Yaz’s body, curling every nerve-end, cooking every cell.
“Ah, what’s happening!” she cries, reaching up to touch her face. It morphs beneath her fingers, melts to mortar and crumbling stone. The carpet blackens as if cast over by an enormous shadow, and she begins to sink. The three figures stand elevated, identically dressed. The harsh light that blazes out from Yaz’s body outlines their cold eyes, their grimset mouths. They watch her as she falls, and screams.
“No, you can't do this to me!”
Frustration that is not her own bursts forth and subsumes all terror. The tone that voices this feeling is bored, faintly nauseated; I know this already. Faces glare at her from all sides, spinning and merging. So many of them are familiar, and yet she has never seen them before. Possibility fans out either side, past and future, indistinguishable.
Golden fire greets her like an old friend. Older than she knows.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!”
Dan has given up trying to wipe up the tar. It gathers from a crack in the cornice and slops down onto the kitchen counter in a constant pit-pat, and it covers the inside of the oven, spread against the glass in a crusty smear. This ship is a dump. All the cupboards have are cans of soup, which has got to be some sort of practical joke. Dan ate it anyway. He was starving. That’s probably why he kept hearing tempura. What he wouldn’t give for something good and deep fried…
He tries not to think about Dianne. About her flickering face projected in amongst all that darkness, or about the fear in her voice, which he knows to be so brave. He imagines her telling him off for worrying.
The Doctor said she’d save her, and Yaz said she trusts the Doctor, and Dan reckons that Yaz has an at least half trustworthy-looking face. This flimsy assurance is all he has, except for all the soup, and his miniature house.
Dan turns it over and over in his hands. He can’t hear the furniture knocking about inside, which must be a good sign. His best boots can’t be larger than a grain of sand. He strokes the roof with a careful fingertip. He never did get the tiling fixed.
His house is a box. A useless little box, with the meagre collection of all his worldly possessions locked away inside. And his whole planet, locked behind a wall of dog-manned spacecraft. Will he ever get back, or will he always be an exile?
Exile? That’s a funny way of putting it. Dan is not generally one to complain. In fact, he tries to avoid it at all costs. His thoughts barrel on without his permission.
So what, maybe he has wasted the last century or so. But he’s been having a good time, isn’t that what matters? People flit in and out of his life, but that’s ok – he shows people around the universe, and he just loves to watch the delight spread across their faces when they see the view. He helps out. He really is quite proud of that.
Museum, wasn’t it? Not the universe. This place is messing with his head.
Dan sets his house on the kitchen counter and goes toward the door. He feels dizzy all of a sudden – this ship seems to have that effect, not pleasant to move about in, probably on account of the Time travel. It reeks of engine oil and burning, and all the rooms are titled, spinning slightly on shifting axes. Cold, too. Dan stumbles against the doorframe.
Blue, the door is blue, and there is smoke gathering up around him, pale and acrid. His chest aches like it's on fire. Old friend. A great swath of empty space hangs above him that he cannot grasp, and his head aches and throbs at the temples. His trousers are too short.
Dan pushes the door open and stands for a moment in the open air; English air, grey and linear, choked with smoke and nettles and radar waves. He careens forwards, stumbling over new feet, and falls face-first into the weeds.
“No, no, stop. Come on! Stop hiding it.” The voice stretches, then snaps, and echoes elastic through the corridor, winding its way to… Dan. Yes, that’s right. Dan is standing in a deep blue corridor that smells faintly of mud. The smoke is gone now, but his fingertips still buzz with heat. It’s the Doctor talking, lilt wilted and sharp; faded, platinum. Dan lumbers on toward it.
“I can trace it!” She mutters. Only a whisper, and yet it carries true as if passed directly from mouth to ear. The sound crackles slightly as if through a radio. There’s a tinny, guttural clanging behind the walls, and an accompanying noise, whinny or whalesong, drawn out and low. The floor slopes down until it is more like a slide. Dan struggles to keep his feet as he sidles downward.
Another clang, thunderous and sheer.
A voice that mimics its tone; “Stop showing me either side! That’s not what I want – shove it out the way. I don’t care where it goes.”
“Doctor?” His breath pools in the air, then zips off, as if carried on an unfelt wind. Down the slide and into the dim orange glow at the end. It looks like an incinerator.
Another gonging strike sounds off, and dark shadows shift against the fiery blare. A subterranean factory, or a smelting pit.
“I told you to lead them away,” says the smith.
Smith? Dan remembers them calling him that, all the straight-backed men in olive green.
“Away, not to! I’m busy.”
Dan takes the final stretch of the descent on his backside, and tumbles out into the console room. He sits upright and looks up at the Doctor sheepishly. His left hand has landed in a congealing puddle of black, oily muck, which he unknowingly smears across his hair in an attempt to flatten it. The Doctor bears down on him, though it might only be the angle. Bent and little, with her shoulders pulled up tense around her ears and the fierce russet glow the ship’s great crystal stanchions seeping her pale coat in muted gold. Her eyebrows are furrowed and her thin mouth twisted down.
“Err, hi there Doctor,” says Dan, embarrassed. There’s black spaceship mucus coating his trousers.
“Not good,” she mutters, biting her lip. “Very not good.” Her eyes are wide and red-brown, staring at something behind him.
“Sorry, I know you’re busy. This place is making me feel a bit queasy. Thought I’d just…” It being apparent that the Doctor doesn’t plan on helping him up any time soon, Dan struggles to his feet and brushes his sticky palm on his jacket sleeve. “Err, just hunker down in here for a while.”
“Dan!” she cries, as if finally recognising him. She jitters over, white and hunched and sort of twitching, and claps him on the shoulder in a way she likely means to be genial, maybe brotherly. Fatherly? She doesn’t pull it off. She scarpers back toward the console. “Been feeling okay?” she asks.
“Err, no. Queasy, as I said. But I’ll be fine, I’ve got some soup in me.”
“Soup! Excellent. Love soup.” She bends over the ship’s controls and waggles her fingers sharply, her knuckles pop. “Brain soup, time soup, mind soup,” she mutters.
“You haven’t seen anything, have you Dan?”
“Ohh,” – she crinkles her features up like tissue paper – “just things. Leftover things. Borrowed things. I’ve been making room. Storm kicked up a mess. Dust’s still settling.” Short and disjointed, she lets her phrases hang, and the ship wheezes throatily beneath. She shushes it between breaths, tapping her nails in a drumming rhythm against its counter-top. “Nice cravat,” she says, throwing a quick glance over her shoulder.
Dan decides that she can’t have been talking to him. He reaches up and checks his collar just in case, but finds it plain.
“So… is it okay if I stay here for a bit? At least I’ll be able to find the door.” Dan chuckles, and then keeps on chuckling. It goes on too long and peters off into a grumble, then a cough, then a heady, honey-coloured silence.
The Doctor says nothing, so Dan takes a seat on the stairs.
“Now, where were we?” The Doctor cranes her neck and asks the ceiling. Above, the pilasters are indistinct, weaving in and out of the metal panelling and flashing roundels. Curling around one another, catching the light on all their chipped, jewelled faces.
“There isn’t much time now, it’s fading. I need more time.” She laughs a little at that, low and spiky. “The dark, then the smoke, the grass. But I have a fragment now. I know what it felt like to exist in between.”
Her hair flickers, coils, blackens as if burned. Her body elongates, and grows thicker-set. Her shoulders broaden, and upon them her coat flashes between drab grey and harsh navy. She grows, in a folded instant, then shrivels back to her usual sunken gait. She winces and drags a sharp hand up to her tilting head. “Yes, no room,” she wheezes in tune with the ship, breath expelled through the body within and the room without, unanimously. The central control panel smokes, and a fat drop of its dark blood splats beside the Doctor, and coats her shoe.
“Shoes,” Dan mutters aloud.
The Doctor whispers, “Stop shoving it onto them, you know they don’t like it.” A pause, during which the room buzzes, and the central, yellow crystal slides indignantly down. “Yes, I know you’re not meaning to. It’s all muddled up, no anchoring point. No origin. Sorry Dan.” She turns abruptly, and Dan is surprised that she recalls his presence. “I’m trying to get something sorted in my head. Reverse-engineering pieces of the storm, picking at the residue. It’s all got to do with this Flux business, just have to make the incision. Peel it bare, rearrange things.”
Maybe she’s a surgeon. Her fingers are nimble enough. Dan’s head twinges; no, that wasn’t his thought. The voice that the thought belongs to asks, with his mouth, “Are you okay?”
“Fine!” the Doctor says, stringently cheerful, irritated. “Just a little out of practise.”
“Should I get Yaz?”
“No!” the Doctor shouts, then calms, wrings her hands. “No, she needs to rest.”
The Doctor steadies her palms on the edge of the console and hangs her head. Dan watches the bolt-stripe of her part, where black fades to blonde.
“No, no I can’t do that. No more purges, didn’t I say?” Her shoulders quiver. “How? How can I sort the important from the unimportant?” Her voice rises, edges toward a high, desperate, rasping pitch. “How can I sacrifice a single moment, when they’re all I have? All I am. This meagre collection, against the wealth.” An enormous slop of tar falls and smears her shoulder, streaks her entire arm shiny black. She whispers, “against multitudes.” Her tone slides, from angry to soft. “You must be able to find somewhere. I don’t care how full it is! I don’t care about contingencies. We’re both leaking, eh?” The smile in her voice is wry and sad. “Both breaking apart under the weight.” She poises one black-flecked hand aloft then reaches inside the control panel. A gap in the machinery. Her spine straightens as if shocked through, then curves, her neck cracks as it arches up. The Doctor lets out a trilling sigh, then steadies her feet, tapers her height. “Hmm,” she murmurs. “Yes, shove those back a touch, makes room at the front. Fold them alongside… yes, there. They were only dreams.” The ship’s answering groan rattles Dan’s ribs. “Hmm, those memories are of no use these days, and so unpleasant… they’ve been retconned, yes.”
“Doctor?” Dan asks. His voice is slight, and his vision is blurring.
“What are you doing in there?” One of her arms is submerged up to the forearm in the space below the panelling. Dark flecks spurt up as if from a blocked spout.
Her voice is low, and curt, and faintly Scottish. “Housekeeping. Making room. Hush.”
The world reeks of oil and rust. Dan slumps upon the stairs.