(Kigkrywui, Theta Eridani, 27,003,957)
This world is a cold and desolate place.
A red giant star hangs sullenly in the sky, bathing everything in bloody orange light. The sky is deep indigo and a chill wind whistles through the orange-tinged grey heather. This place is where the TARDIS has landed them at random: the console read Kigkrywui, year roughly 27,004,000, give or take a few centuries. The whole place appears long since abandoned. From the Doctor's lack of reaction when he saw the TARDIS' readout, from the way he's striding curiously through the heather, he's never heard of this planet before, nor been to it.
The Master has.
Sometime around the year 100,000, long before the Time War, long before his first set of regenerations ran their course, and only shortly after he had started calling himself the Master in his own head, he had happened to come to this place. The light had been yellower then, but the planet much colder, everything covered in a light powdery snow. There had been no grey heather then. The Kigkry warmed and fueled their small stone cities with hot springs below the planet's surface, and although their technology was primitive at best, they were not surprised at the Master's appearance, and moreover only dipped their ears in polite Kigkry smiles when the Master offered them certain technological advancements. They had seen the devastation those technologies could bring, they explained to the Master, and when he asked them how they knew, their ears went up and they clicked a little with nervousness and finally one of them said, Show him the Sacred Room.
What the Master saw there he will never forget.
He crunches along calmly after the Doctor. His feet aren't yet used to the funny shoes the Doctor has lent him, but their dirty off-white cloth is far more suitable to this terrain than his polished black dress shoes, so he makes no complaint. In the distance he can see the low hive-like bumps of a ruined Kigkry city, and isn't surprised: the Kigkry Sacred Room, as he understands it, is as eternal as can be expected, and will preserve its physical home. A mutable fact.
"Out of curiosity," he says, coming up next to the Doctor, "do you have any idea where you're going?"
"Exploring," the Doctor says, squinting up at the stone hives. "There's no one alive here but us, but the TARDIS did pick up some funny energy readings." He turns and gives the Master a grin. "Could be interesting."
Unbelievable, the Master thinks. The Doctor's been alone so long he's nearly forgotten how to keep his thoughts contained, and the resultant fallout is incredible. It's composed entirely of white noise and occasional flashes of sheer misery, but sometimes something else, too: a strong flare of something not quite lust and not quite hope, that the Master finds impossible to catalogue. In any case, it's quite remarkable, the way he's nearly able to beat the Doctor down, but can't quite manage it. If the Doctor would just stop forgiving, could just give up for one moment--
"What sort of energy readings?" he asks.
"Funny fluctuations in spacetime," the Doctor says, starting to walk a little faster. Evidently funny fluctuations in spacetime put a bit of a spring into his step. "Quantum stuff."
"Doctor," the Master says, and catches briefly at his coat sleeve so that the Doctor turns to look at him, startled. The Master gives him an utterly disdainful look. "I'm not one of your humans. I can feel the 'funny fluctuations in spacetime'."
The Doctor actually stops walking, and goes very still. "Oh," he says, and swallows. "Right."
"What sort of quantum 'stuff'?"
The Doctor drags in a breath and says, quite rapidly, "Something here is playing with the n-space possibilities. The TARDIS calculated it at something approaching an infinite number of permutations, but contained, except that the possibility matrices are horribly degraded, and if there's a lot more decay some of the permutations will escape into this reality."
The Master sucks in a breath. Evidently a few hundred thousand years makes quite a difference in the safety of the Kigkry Sacred Room-- although 'safety' was a relative term to begin with. Perhaps one of the possibilities destroyed the Kigkry themselves; unsurprising, but a pity nonetheless. They may have been completely useless in the grand scheme of the universe, but they were intelligent custodians. And abominably furry.
"They called it their Sacred Room," he says, and is nearly as shocked to hear himself say it as the Doctor is. He's learning, though, because the shock on the Doctor's face morphs at once into suspicion.
"You've been here before," the Doctor says.
"A long time ago," the Master says softly, and resumes walking.
"So what does their... sacred quantum room do?"
Draws you in and pulls you apart. Shows you what might have been and is and what might be. Tempts you terribly. Changes things.
Changes things, the Master thinks, and feels his pulses race.
"It offers possibilities," he says quietly, nearly under the crunching their shoes make on the brittle ground. "If it leaked-- Everyone would be offered possibilities. It would probably take all of thirty seconds for the universe to collapse."
The Doctor thinks about this for a moment; then a grin lights his face. "Time to save the universe, then," he says.
The Master groans. Save yourself, save the bloody world, he thinks, but that might not be necessary. If he's offered the right possibility... He follows the Doctor wordlessly on up the hill and at length they reach the tunnel that leads down into the city. Cold radiates out from the dark doorway. The Doctor, unsurprisingly, produces a small torch from the pocket of his trenchcoat and shines it down into the gloom: smooth stone descends into blackness. They set off down into the heart of the city, walking carefully-- the stone is worn-down and slippery, and a false step might send them into an undignified slide. The Master hopes, with vague petty vindictiveness, that the Doctor will lose his footing. He could do with a laugh.
They walk along the dark echoing tunnel (which flattens out eventually, but gets no warmer; the hot springs, evidently, have vanished, which might also account for the absence of the Kigkry) and some twenty minutes in, both stop abruptly. It's like a buzzing in the fingertips and a light in the mind and voices whispering on the edge of hearing, and for a horrible moment the drums in the Master's head go absolutely deafening. They stand for a moment in front of the blank stretch of stone wall.
"How does it work?" the Doctor asks in a whisper. He could figure it out in an instant, but he's still asking. The Master nearly doesn't catch the surge of hatred in time; his nails dig hard into the palms of his hands and he barely manages to not slam the Doctor right through the wall.
"You walk through," he says. "Just walk right through."
"No," the Doctor says, turning to look at him intently, the torch lighting his face from below and making his eyes glitter strangely. "How does it work? How many people can it calibrate? If we both go in, does the whole thing go boom? What happens when a possibility is chosen? Why--"
The Master holds up a hand, and the Doctor stops talking abruptly. The Master's eyes drift shut briefly with the thrill of being obeyed, but he says, quite calmly, "The Sacred Room, to my understanding, was used as a method of observation. The Kigkry told me that the first of their kind to use it-- to find it, it wasn't made-- chose to use it carefully. Fortunate he did, wasn't it?" The Master stares at the blank stretch of stone and frowns. "They told me... They were only allowed inside their quantum room in pairs. Both to see: one to choose, and the other to mediate. To say no if they found the choice dangerous."
"Clever," the Doctor murmurs, his eyebrows going up. "But they're all gone now."
"And with no one to choose stability it's breaking down," the Master says. "At a guess. Or it just has a flawed energy field and we're all about to die." He grins.
"And when a possibility is chosen?" the Doctor asks, ignoring this last.
"It becomes so, as I understand it," the Master says. "A lot of Kigkry discoveries were made in that room. Central heating. This really delicious bright blue food-- pity they're gone, I would have liked to have some more."
"So we'll have to make it stable," the Doctor says. "Refuse all the choices until we find the right one."
The Master's lip curls a little. "So who chooses, and who mediates?"
The Doctor glances at him. "I'll choose," he says, as though this is perfectly obvious. "And you don't want the universe to end, so when I find some way of making this thing stable you'll allow the choice to be made."
"You'd trust me with that."
The Doctor fixes him with a steady look, chin tilted up a little, deadly serious. "I have to," he says.
Together they walk through the wall, which presses back at them like stone and then like rubber and then like soft clay before yielding. For a moment they're standing in a dusty dark cavern; then the Doctor's torch goes out. Darkness. The drums beat under the Master's pulses and he can hear the Doctor breathing next to him, calm and even. Slowly, as though a very great distance away, a point of light flickers and glitters to life. After a moment it's followed by another, and then another, and more and more glowing into existence, like faraway stars, except that the points of light are entirely at random, even underneath them, without a point of reference for the floor. The Master can feel his feet standing solidly on nothing, and he's a Time Lord; it isn't disorienting, but neither is it comfortable. More and more pinprick lights appear, exponentially multiplying, until there is more light than darkness. For a moment the Master catches a glimpse of the Doctor's face: his mouth is a little open, in something like a smile, pure wonder in his eyes, and the Master nearly has time to think it beautiful before the blinding white light eclipses his sight entirely, and--
They're standing on a suburban Earth street of the twenty-first century; the TARDIS is to the Master's right, a brick house to his left. The Doctor's wearing his blue suit, and he's staring in some astonishment at Martha Jones.
"Come in for tea," Martha says.
"What?" the Doctor says.
"Tea," Martha says. "Mum really wants to thank you properly."
"But we-- had this conversation," the Doctor says, with some difficulty. The Master smiles a little. He remembers the utter confusion. He remembers not quite knowing where he was, having a peculiar sense of déjà vu, glancing around as though certain someone was watching him-- yes, the Doctor does it now, his gaze sweeping unseeingly over the Master. The Master remembers, too, what he chose, and he remembers the quivery-eared horror with which the Kigkry shunted him out of the room and off of their planet as politely and quickly as possible.
"First time I've had this conversation," Martha says, grinning. "What, can Time Lords get déjà vu?"
"No," the Doctor says. "I-- I don't have time to come in for tea."
"All right," Martha says, shrugging, and the scene dissolves into whiteness.
Interesting, the Master thinks. Another thing the Kigkry told him: since there are infinite possibilities, the room sorts through probabilities first. It rummages through your head and finds what you want and puts those possibilities ahead of lesser ones. Interesting.
Fade in: the TARDIS, going haywire around them. The whole place is pervaded with the sense of a recent regeneration, like cinnamon and copper under the Master's fingernails and inside his eyes. A blonde girl is clutching at the console. "But what about Jack?" she asks.
Confusion passes briefly across the Doctor's face, but he's still going as haywire as the TARDIS and shakes it off in a moment. "He needs to stay behind and rebuild the Earth!"
Try harder, the Master tells the room in annoyance, but when the next scene fades in Rose Tyler is still there, standing in front of the TARDIS, staring up into the sky. It's nighttime, and a fine rain of ash is sifting down from above. The Master grins to himself. Oh, that Christmas had been perfect. When he turns his attention from the sky, the Doctor is staring at Rose, with a look of confusion and pain.
To his astonishment, this reality starts solidifying around them.
"No," the Master snarls. "Whatever he's choosing here, I'm not allowing it."
The Doctor sighs and reaches out and takes Rose Tyler's hand, and the scene fades into whiteness. Then--
Everything is blood red and searing hot and, to the Master's absolute astonishment, they're standing in the Panopticon. He is, at least; the Doctor is on his hands and knees on the floor, shaking madly. There's an uncertainty to his form; he has the same hands and hair and face as he did when stepping into the quantum room, but the posture is different, the clothing entirely wrong. At the edge of hearing: screams, explosions. And... the Master turns to see what the Doctor is staring so fixedly at, and sees the Eye of Harmony.
"You didn't," he breathes.
But of course, it's quite brilliant: by the time the Master himself had fled, Skaro had been blasted to charred dust and the Dalek Emperor had taken on a full offensive directed towards Gallifrey itself. The Time Lords had been, impossibly, losing. That was when the Master had gone; stolen a chameleon arch, stolen a TARDIS, and fled to the end of the universe, to a time where neither Daleks nor Time Lords would ever think to look. He refused to be used again. And meanwhile the Doctor had been here, below the citadel, knowing: a universe with the Time Lords dead is far better than a universe controlled by Daleks.
He kneels next to the Doctor in fascination, the stones almost red-hot under his knees. The Doctor's teeth are clenched and his eyes are over-bright and he looks as though he's in almost unbearable agony, and this time the Master does have time to appreciate the beauty, because the moment stretches onwards and onwards; not solidifying yet, because the Doctor hasn't decided.
The Master realizes, with a faint thrill of surprise, that if the Doctor chooses to let the war play out another way, he will not stop it.
But the Doctor reaches a trembling hand into his pocket and pulls out something absurdly simple: a hand grenade made for skirmishes early on in the war. When thrown, the grenade would distort the time field for a ten foot radius, freezing the victim to a fixed point in time. It would also, the Master thinks, be entirely suitable for completely destabilizing the nucleus of a black hole and effectively burning up an entire planet and every single Dalek fleet surrounding it. The Doctor stares at the hand grenade for a long, terrible moment. Then he pulls out the pin and lobs it at the Eye of Harmony.
They're standing on the wind-torn side of a gravelly cliff above an expansive plain full of missiles, and the Doctor is coming towards him, slowly, as though he's a cornered dog. "Weapon after weapon after weapon," the Doctor says.
It takes the Master a moment to realize that he's holding something out at arm's length, and that this is what the Doctor must be talking about.
"All you do," the Doctor says, "is talk and talk and talk."
"What?" the Master says.
"But after all these years," the Doctor says, "and all these disasters, I've always had the greatest secret of them all. I know you."
It's not supposed to work like this, the Master realizes. The observer is never a part of the scenario, never.
"Explode those ships," the Doctor says, staring out over the world and back at the Master, "you kill yourself. That's the one thing you could never do." He holds out a hand, slow and careful, so damn sanctimonious and right, and says, softly, "Give that to me."
"No," the Master says. "This isn't real. This is a trick."
Confusion flickers across the Doctor's face.
"I know how it goes," the Master says, laughing a little. "All right? I know. You thought you were going to die and you still had the guts to blow up Gallifrey."
The Doctor stumbles backwards as though the Master has slapped him.
"But I couldn't even blow up this stupid little planet," the Master says. The drums pound in his head and the wind roars across the cliff top and he nearly has to shout to hear himself. "I gave in and I ran. And back on Gallifrey I ran. And you-- you always run too. You ran when you saw the vortex, and you ran to the vortex. How stupid can you be? And you just-- keep-- running--"
The Doctor has gone very pale. "Stop talking," he says. "We need to find a way to stop this thing. Can't you feel it? It's breaking all its parameters."
"But you didn't run from Gallifrey!" the Master shouts at him. "And you didn't run from me! Why didn't you run?"
"I couldn't!" the Doctor screams back, shaking. "Someone had to end it-- you're my responsibility--"
The Master grabs the lapels of the Doctor's coat furiously, his doomsday device dropping into the gravel, forgotten. "Am I the Time War?" he snarls. "Am I Romana? Am I your friend? Am I something you can fix, am I something you can save--?"
"Yes," the Doctor says, furious, fierce.
"Forgiving me won't solve anything!" the Master yells, shaking him. "Loving me won't make everything better! After the Time War-- when you were all that was left-- Jack loved you! Rose loved you! Martha loved you! Did it change a thing?"
The Doctor swallows. "No," he whispers.
The Master slowly lets go of his coat.
They're not on the cliff anymore, but in the white nothingness; it flickers, like a bad film projection, nearly unreal. They're both breathing too hard and the Master wants to break something, the Doctor's nose or fingers or neck, but he can't. All of the room's possibilities have been useless. Not one of them has tempted the Doctor sufficiently. Not one of them, even the last, can rid him of the Doctor, not really. The whiteness is fading into grey and the walls of the cave are appearing back around them.
"This," the Doctor whispers, echoing a little. "I choose this. Just an empty cave on a dead world. No more possibilities here."
The Master can feel it solidifying. "Yes," he says.
The room deposits them, gently, back into the dark corridor, and goes, with absolute awful finality, silent.
The Doctor switches on his torch. They walk wordlessly back up along the tunnel to the surface. A chill, blood red sunset greets them, and they set off back down the heathery slope towards the TARDIS. The crunch of brittle plant life underfoot nearly drowns out the drumming, and the Master hates everything in the whole universe with a terrible vicious ache.
"Why didn't it kill you?" he asks.
The Doctor glances over at him, eyes wide with remembered pain. The light here is almost exactly as it was before the Eye of Harmony. "I ran," he says, soft and simple. "It didn't destabilize right away. It-- froze. And I ran. I ran to the TARDIS and I hit the first coordinates I could find and I spent a week getting drunk in a bar on Betelgeuse because I couldn't hear anyone anymore. And then I went back to look, and it had burned. There was nothing left. No one."
They walk on in silence.
When they reach the TARDIS, the Doctor pauses for a moment and runs a hand up her wooden side before going in. The control room hums soothingly. The Doctor won't even look at the Master; the Master watches him go up one level, but doesn't hear him go up any more. He pauses over the TARDIS' controls, his hands itching to try them and knowing it's quite useless.
He goes upstairs and finds the Doctor sitting on a couch the Master's rather fond of. He's leaning back and staring blankly at nothing, and without probing at all the Master knows the Doctor is slowly taking all the choices and memories and shoving them down and down until he can pretend none of them matter.
The Master sits down next to him on the couch and digs for a moment between the cushions; he finds a few shortbread crumbs and a penny from 1896 before his hand closes over the white bag. He turns to the Doctor, knowing it's hardly worth it, knowing the look on the Doctor's face will make him want to gouge his eyes out with a blunt spoon, and knowing, too, that despite all the things he's said, the Doctor will still cling to false hope, and that is today's victory.
The white bag crackles when he pulls it out; a bit squished, but it will do.
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