Mel said, “You’re avoiding the subject.”

The Doctor frowned, snapping, “I am not! There are many much more important things that need to be done first!”

“Such as?”

“What?” He hadn’t expected to name an example. His mind raced. “Ah, what… “ He snapped his fingers. “Sector Thirteen! The last time we went through there, the TARDIS detected some very strange readings. I think it’s well worth checking into.” He saw that she was unsatisfied. “And… and and… the TARDIS is due for a refit, as well!”

“Long overdue if you ask me, but you’re still avoiding the subject.”

He glared over at the exercise bicycle across from the console, and thrust his hands into his pockets. “I am a Time Lord! I’ve been tortured by Daleks, Zygons, Sontarans, my own people! They’ve all tried to get me to submit, and they failed every one of them! And no mere human is going to bully me into losing weight!”

Mel sighed. “But just think of all those clothes in the wardrobe room going to waste because of… well, because of your waist!” The Doctor looked down at his stomach questioningly. “There are so many other wonderful coats and jackets you could be wearing instead of that!” She winced at his patchwork coat. “I saw a nice velvet coat in there… and a set of cricket whites… “

The Doctor snapped, “Not those!” He pulled a hand from his pocket and laid it on the handle of the exercise-bike tepidity. He sighed, trying to reason with her. “Mel, I’ve been running through corridors, climbing through air-shafts and escaping alien prisons for over 900 years! Obviously, I’m in good enough shape for that!”

Mel shook her head, smiling. “You’ve told me all about regeneration already, so don’t use that old excuse on me. Those were other bodies.” She patted his stomach. “Thinner bodies! Can’t you see that all I’m trying to do is make this one more healthy for you? It can all be fun, you know? The exercises, the bike—“

“—the carrot juice – “ The Doctor’s mouth curled distastefully.

“You know as well as I do that with anything worthwhile in life, there’s a little pain involved. No pain, no gain and all that.”

The Doctor sniffed, “My disdain of gain lies mainly in the pain.” His eyes flickered, and he cocked his head slightly. “Did you feel that?”

Mel looked about, confused. “Feel what?”

Taking his hand from the bike-handle, he said, “The TARDIS. It’s moved.” He went over to the console, and looked over the instruments.

“But you said that we were holding position in the time vortex until we decided—“

“We? This is my ship!”

“Aright…until you decided where we would go next.” A wry smile crossed her face. “And you didn’t say anything about Sector Thirteen or any refit then.”

“What are you talking abo—” He looked up from the controls, and saw her expression. He pointed down at a small screen on the console. “See? We’ve moved 0.00052 milli-pascals.”

Mel crossed her arms, still not believing him. “Well, I don’t know what a milli-pascal is, but is doesn’t sound like much, really.”

“Like much? Much?! In your races limited two-dimensional terms, we could have drifted 900 light-years, or four millennia!” He went around the console, and tabbed a control. “No, the orbital drift compensators are working fine. But I can’t see…” He looked up to see a row of red lights start to throb quickly. His hearts jumped, and he said, “Mel, hold o—“

The TARDIS lurched wildly. The Doctor held tight to the console, his knuckles white. His eyes darting across the console, he read off dials, gauges and screens. He went to reach for the controls of emergency-rematerialization. But the second his hand was free, the ship was rocked again, and he was sent stumbling back against the wall, barely missing the hatstand. He grimaced as he felt the centrifugal force weigh on his body. He heard the engines of the TARDIS roaring as it was pulled against its will through time and space. He then noticed that Mel wasn’t standing where she had been but a few seconds ago. “Mel!” From where he was pressed against the wall, he couldn’t see her on the other side of the console. But looking lower, he could see her legs on the floor, fallen. Unmoving.

“Mel!” The TARDIS suddenly tilted again, and he knocked from the wall forward, into the console…

*

Cranial trauma. Must’ve hit my head on the console… stupid old Doctor… I’d been meaning to steal—borrow—the Rani’s design for her interior… such simple, nice curves… much less chance of cracking my noggin open on some whacking great edge… I hope there isn’t any blood… I’d hate for Mel to see that…

Mel! She on lying on the floor… she could be hurt… I’ve got to help her… got to… to… legs… hello legs… come on, get up… we’ve got to help Mel… oh this is insane, you can’t just up and quit on me whenever you want… this is just like that last time, on Androzani Minor…

No! Not now… it’s just a bump, surely… doesn’t mean I have to… to… you’re joking… if, if I do what master K’Anpo taught me, enter the self-healing trance, I’ll be right as rain in a few days… I’m sure of it… no need for all this… slow, slow the hearts down…

But Mel. She’s lying there… hurt… and something’s pulling the TARDIS off course… neither of them might not survive a few days… it’s not fair… not fair… I’ve grown accustomed to this face… like breathing out and breathing in…

Oh no. I’m getting giddy… it’s starting… but this’ll be my sixth regeneration… half of my cycle, gone… I can’t… I won’t… perhaps… perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if Mel didn’t… well, survive… the trial showed her and I fighting the Vervoids, and that timeline led to my eventually becoming the Valeyard… but what happened at the trial threw all sorts of paradoxes into my future… we haven’t met the Vervoids yet… without her, maybe I won’t become the Valeyard… just one life, compared to the ones I could ruin in the future… just stop the regeneration now before it gets…

But. But what if letting Mel die is what leads to that future… does it get easier after she dies… just one more death, just one more life snuffed out… but if I regenerate, I risk losing it all… I’ve put so many things in motion… so many balls in the air… will my next persona be able to juggle them all… but Mel is counting on me… I haven’t any choice at all, do I…

Do I?

Peri? What are you doing here… come to see me off, have you… I’m so sorry… I’m sorry I never went back, to tell you why I left you behind on Peladon… no, it wasn’t Peladon, was it… it was … it was… blast, the neural pathways are already beginning to… to… I can’t… I can’t…

Grant… Evelyn… Frobisher, you silly old platypus… how many times have I told you when I say run… run… Mel… Mel, I’m coming… not long now, I think… a quick renewal, and I’ll be sound as a crown… no, sound as a shilling… wait, how does that go…

Father? Is that you… did I fall asleep outside again… no, don’t carry me to bed just yet… there’s a lovely meteor shower starting… put me down… please let me stay just a little while longer…

… just a little longer…

*

The Doctor mumbled, “No, no Mel…” Silly girl, why should she be arguing like that? Why was he lying down? Ah, he was lying down before, wasn’t he? But, why?

His eyes snapped open and he sat up with a start. “Ah, that was a nice nap. Now down to business.” He leapt up from where he’d lay, and rubbed his hands together with gusto. He rattled off, “I’m a bit worried about the temporal flicker in Sector Thirteen. There’s a bicentennial refit of the TARDIS to book in. I must just pop over to Centauri Seven, and then perhaps q quick holiday.” He smiled, satisfied. “Right, that all seems quite clear. Just three small points? Where am I? Who am I? And who are you?” He turned about in a flash, pointing at an exotic woman standing behind him. It took him a moment, but he quickly recognized her. “The Rani!”

The Rani took a step towards the Doctor. He saw his colored umbrella (what a wonderful time he and Harry had fishing for gumblejack… just before that mess with his second incarnation) and pushed it up defensively. He took a couple of steps back, and tumbled down a small set of steps behind him, falling over onto the floor.

The Rani said, frustrated, “This is idiotic! You’ll injure yourself!”

The Doctor climbed quickly back to his feet. “Why should you care? Since you were exiled from Gallifrey, you’d had contempt for all other Time Lords!”

The Rani said with a chuckle, “My contempt started long before my exile.”

“And what do you want with me?” He looked around the room, suddenly remembering his fallen companion. “And where’s Mel?”

The Rani smiled slyly. “She’s completely safe. But how long she remains so depends on you.”

The Doctor’s eyes narrowed at her. “You’re up to something.” He realized that what he’d been lying on was in fact a control console. He went around to the other side, away from the Rani, fingering the controls. “Perhaps I’ll find the answer on this.” He saw a large dark screen on top of the console. In the reflection, he saw a man’s face he didn’t recognize: small features, and dark curly hair. Shortly, the screen lit up, and the picture of a bright world appeared. The momentary glimpse of the strange man's face was soon forgotten as he looked at the picture of the planet.

“You won’t recognize the planet." The Rani told him, "It’s Lakertya, and there’s no evidence that it’s ever been graced by your meddling presence.”

The Doctor smiled. “You’re trying to deflect me. So the answer is on here.” He stabbed at more controls, and the screen changed from the planet to an orbiting asteroid. Data scrolled alongside the asteroid’s image and the Doctor read it. “Quarks… one up… one down… one—” His eyes widened at what he read, and he magnified the asteroid’s picture until it filled the screen. He breathed, amazed, “Strange matter.” He pointed at the screen. “That asteroid is composed of strange matter… “

The Doctor looked up at the Rani, accusingly. “What monstrous experiment are you dabbling in now?!”



NOT THE END



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