(Xi Cephei, Aqua Septima, 80,366,004)
In all his nine hundred years, the Doctor can't recall having ever felt quite like this.
He's certainly felt something close before. Romana, for instance: he remembers wanting to sit very close to her and lean their heads together and grin, because being in her presence made him happy like almost nothing else in the universe. Or, more recently, the sensory memories from this body making the recollection closer, Reinette: the moment the fireplace started to swing around and he'd looked up into her face and had a sudden brilliant flash of insight. But this-- this isn't either of those things. This is what he felt around Romana painfully honed, because there is no background hum of other Time Lords out there in the universe to dull his awareness. This is like being hit with that flash of insight every time the Master enters a room or tilts his head a certain way. The Doctor finds that his skin is tingling nearly constantly; he keeps getting distracted and bumping into things and he has the horrible feeling that if he tried to talk he would stammer, but he hasn't said enough to prove this theory one way or another.
It's as though some door has been unlocked in his mind, and he's too afraid to close it again for fear of what he might see on the other side.
They spend a day in the depths of space near a supernova, but the Master acts totally disinterested and without someone else's enthusiastic awe to feed off, the Doctor feels peculiarly lost. The TARDIS feels too small to properly contain them both, so the Doctor sets a course for 1973; they go to a David Bowie concert and get completely sloshed and somehow still manage to avoid touching each other at all. They sit out on a dark street staring up at the gently spinning stars; the Master starts to say something and stops and the Doctor can't decide whether he's being kind or cruel.
Back on the TARDIS, the Master retreats to some far-off room and the Doctor sets a course at random through the vortex, hoping absently that they might pick up some distress signal; he feels an overwhelming need to be useful, to help people. To save something and make it right, because he's beginning to see that saving the Master and making him right is going to be difficult in ways he hadn't even thought to consider.
What he gets isn't a distress signal. Instead, the TARDIS gives a sort of shuddering hum and locks onto coordinates the Doctor doesn't recognize, although they're identified as being for the planet Xi Cephei, which-- the Doctor squints at the readings as the TARDIS begins the process of materialization-- is a planet covered entirely in water, its life readings in billions. And there the TARDIS sits, apparently somewhere underwater, humming to herself in a self-satisfied way, so the Doctor pulls up a screen display.
The scene that meets his eyes isn't one of murky water, darting fish, or anything he generally thinks of as oceanic, but rather a shimmering blue-green corridor, and the corridor is slowly filling up with people. The Doctor leans forward to examine them more closely: they look, more or less, like large octopi, their skin a velvety purple-brown and their eyes amber and intelligent. They're very cautiously touching the outside of the TARDIS.
This seems worth a look.
He goes down and opens the TARDIS door very slowly, so as not to alarm them; they scuttle back, and stare up at him. "Hello!" he says.
The TARDIS' ability to translate what he says into their language shocks them visibly; velvety skin ripples and a few of their tentacles twitch. Finally one inches forward a little and says, in a soft, strangely beautiful voice, "What are you?"
"I'm a traveller," the Doctor says. "I'm called the Doctor."
"And I am called Xeph," the spokesoctopus says. "We are the Cephei." It shuffles forward a little, hesitates, and when the Doctor does nothing to discourage it, it touches the side of the TARDIS again, very carefully. "She is living," it says, not like a question.
"Yeah," the Doctor says, and steps out of the TARDIS. The shimmering blue-green floor yields a little under his weight, like a waterbed. "Sorry, I-- I don't actually know how I got here."
"That is easy," Xeph says, its eyes calm. "Your living ship was drawn to our living ship, Doctor. Our living ship would not have let yours in if it was not for some purpose." Other Cephei behind Xeph ripple a little, probably in agreement. "And now you must come with us. There is something you must see."
"Well, I've got-- I've got someone I travel with," the Doctor says, a little awkwardly. "He probably won't like coming out and discovering I'm gone."
"Not particularly," the Master agrees, opening the TARDIS door and peering out. The Cephei shuffle again, with curiosity rather than nervousness this time; the Master glances around at the shimmering blue-green walls and at the Cephei. "Where are we going?"
"I don't know," the Doctor says, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet. "Let's find out."
The Cephei lead them off down the corridor; the Master, not quite used to the waterbed quality of the floor, walks a little awkwardly, but the Doctor doesn't dare offer his arm. At least this place does something to soften the tension between them. The Cephei's tentacles make soft sucking noises as they amble along, and the ship around them sways gently as though in a current. At length the corridor opens up onto a sort of amphitheatre: a huge domed space, as much scooped out below them as rising above their heads. On the floor of the amphitheatre are banks of organic consoles, glittering with coral; a few have holographic displays shining over them. Above-- the Doctor tilts back his head a little to get a quick look-- the dome is semitransparent, and outside is the sea.
The Doctor notes immediately that it seems completely empty.
He looks back around; all the Cephei that have accompanied them thus far are now pouring down into the amphitheatre, using their appendages to reach the ground with ease and grace. Xeph stays behind, staring anxiously up at the Doctor. "Will it be easy for you to reach our navigational space?" it enquires.
"Easy enough," the Doctor says, and he sits down at the edge of the corridor where it opens onto the amphitheatre, grins up at Xeph and the Master, and slides down into the Cephei control room. Various Cephei who have not yet seen him scatter in alarm, and then scatter further as the Master slides down after him and stands up, brushing off his suit. When he sees the Doctor staring at him, he merely raises his eyebrows.
Xeph comes down into the control room with rather more dignity; when the other Cephei see it, they relax a good deal. "Do not fear," Xeph says, still in that odd beautiful voice, with an edge of cheer now. "This creature is a traveller called the Doctor. With him is--"
"The Master," the Doctor says, before the Master can.
"The Master," Xeph agrees, tentacles curling a little-- a gesture of thanks, the Doctor supposes. "They came here," it adds, "in their own living ship."
A sort of shiver ripples through the assembled Cephei.
"Please," Xeph says, "follow me," and wends its way over to one of the consoles. It surges up, wrapped halfway around the console, and begins pressing various buttons with two of its appendages. After a moment, a holographic image flickers to life over the console: a readout, the Doctor sees, of this ship. He pulls his glasses from his pocket in order to take a closer look. They must be, he sees, in a large chamber at the front of the ship. The corridor in which the TARDIS landed runs the ship's length, and smaller corridors branch out to living quarters on its sides at intervals. There is also a lower level, connected by the sole means of the central chamber: this lower level must be workshops. Also low on the front of the ship is something that looks nearly like a mouth. A glance shows that a constant rush of seawater is coming in through this opening and running down a canal in the ship's underbelly. A clever way of catching food, the Doctor sees. In all, the ship gives the impression of being a sort of superfunctional mechanical whale.
"Very clever," he murmurs. "When did your people design them?"
Xeph slides back down onto the floor. "We didn't," it says. "They grow-- they grew, once, long ago."
"And now?" the Doctor asks quietly, folding his glasses away again.
"This is an old world, Doctor," Xeph says. "An old world orbiting an old and cruel star. Our lifetimes are long, but even we do not remember when food was plentiful. Now all that is left are small creatures who feed on radiation. These creatures poison us, not sustain us. This--" it gestures to the diagram of the ship with a tentacle, "is one of the last great motherships. There are no more than a dozen now." It turns pleading amber eyes up to the Doctor. "Please. You must help us."
"A moment," the Master says, laying a hand on the Doctor's shoulder. (A feeling like electricity shoots up the Doctor's spine.) "Why him? Why us? Why do you think we can help you?"
"Because you are from elsewhere," Xeph says calmly. "Because you are travellers and you have seen many things beyond this world and outside our comprehension. This gives you ideas that we do not have the experience to imagine. And," it raises itself up a little to emphasize the importance of its final point, "we have long been told the arrival of a new sort of living ship will signal a great change for the Cephei. You, Doctor and Master, are a tiding of change. It is our fortune you are travellers and do not bring destruction."
The Master's hand on the Doctor's shoulder tightens, nearly imperceptibly.
"We'll help," the Doctor promises. "We'll help in whatever way we can."
Another shivering spreads through the surrounding Cephei.
"Thank you," Xeph says quietly. "Would you like a look around?"
"That might be a good idea, yeah," the Doctor says, and turns to head for the corridor. The Master follows him, but, oddly, none of the Cephei do. The Doctor pauses. "Is anyone coming with me?"
"No," Xeph says. "You should be free to make your assessments and speak your minds."
So, feeling somewhat surprised, the Doctor heads out into the lower corridor, the Master following. Once they're alone, the Master drawls, "So this really is how it works. You try to find as many dying planets as possible and save everyone. How's that working out for your conscience?"
The Doctor turns on him. "Don't touch them," he says, low and furious. "I'm going to save them, and you'll do nothing to stop me."
The Master actually laughs in his face. "Is that a challenge?"
"No," the Doctor says softly, his chin going up a little. "It's a fact."
"Oh dear," the Master murmurs, still grinning, but says nothing more.
It's difficult to concentrate with the Master walking beside him. He's conscious of stupid small things: the way the Master walks, the way the Master breathes, every inch of space between them. He's probably missing crucial details about the ship because his completely insane body is feeling something close to withdrawal. But he grits his teeth and tries to observe anyway, and what he discovers horrifies him.
He takes a sample of the water rushing through the ship, and a very gentle sample of the ship's material off a wall, and walks the length and breadth of the ship, looking. Then he goes up to the TARDIS and runs both the water and the ship fibres through tests. The water results come up horribly radioactive, dangerous enough that the Doctor nearly leaps out of his seat and goes to tell them to shut off the canals as fast as they can, but first he checks the results for the ship, too. It is made of a living tissue surprisingly like that of the TARDIS in cell structure; it seems to be withstanding the radiation admirably, and isn't ill in the least. That's one good thing, anyway. He takes his portable biological scanner and runs back towards the control room ("I'll just stay with the TARDIS, shall I!" the Master shouts after him) and takes a cell sample from the willing Xeph. Xeph comes up with minimal radiation damage too, so the Doctor orders the canal shut immediately, explaining the extent of the poisoning in the water.
"Our sustenance, Doctor," Xeph says, after giving the orders to some nearby Cephei to close the canal and to relay this message to the other ships. "We have very little left. A few rotations' worth at best. Afterwards we will slowly starve, and our mothership with us-- it cannot survive if we are gone."
"I'll think of something," the Doctor promises. "It hasn't come yet, but there's always a solution."
"No there bloody well is not," the Master says, when the Doctor repeats it to him later that day, back in the TARDIS, scanning the ship over with her sensors. "If the whole planet's a big poisonous mess of radioactive plankton or some rubbish, there's not a lot that can be done. The only thing I came up with is piling them all in here and evacuating them, and no one would take them."
The Doctor stares at him.
"Oh, don't think you're the only one who can come up with stupid heroic plans," the Master snaps, and stalks out of the console room.
But when the Doctor suggests this plan, Xeph is adamant. "No," it says, polite but firm. "Our ships cannot live without us, and we cannot live without our ships." It looks at him closely, amber eyes knowing. "Can you live without your ship, Doctor?"
"...No," the Doctor concedes.
"Keep trying," Xeph says, and presses a tentacle gently against the Doctor's trainer for a moment in silent faith.
"Everything I come up with is worse than the last thing I come up with!" the Doctor tells the Master, shutting the TARDIS door behind him. "Get them out? Can't leave the ships. Bring them food? Food can't live here. Clean up the water? Don't have the power. Do something about the sun? Don't have the power!"
"I'm sorry lack of power bothers you," the Master says mildly, putting his feet up on the console.
"And get your shoes off her!" the Doctor snaps.
The Master sits up a little straighter. "Excuse me?" he says, very quietly.
"Off," the Doctor snarls.
The Master leans back and digs his heels a little into the console, watching the Doctor impassively. And the Doctor doesn't even think about it, just strides across the room and seizes the Master's collar and yanks him up out of his chair and onto his feet, and the Master laughs at him. Laughs and very gently disentangles the Doctor's suddenly limp hands from his collar and then holds them, delicately, the Doctor's wrists in his palms like birds.
"Let go," the Doctor says, his mouth very dry.
"You will not order me around, Doctor," the Master says, ignoring him entirely. He runs a thumb over one of the Doctor's wrist bones and the Doctor twitches a little to stop himself from shivering. "You will not because you want to be kind. You want to think that you are my friend. You want to think that you are nice and that you are always a step ahead of the game and that you are merciful." The Doctor starts to pull away and the Master tightens his grip, ever so slightly; the Doctor stills. "And you don't want to listen to me because I'm willing to tell you-- no, I savor telling you-- all those dark things in your head that no one else has the guts to see."
"Let go," the Doctor says again, in a whisper. "Please, just-- let go."
"You are not kind," the Master says, and strangely he says it without malicious glee, but with something quiet and cold in his face. "You come from a calculating and indifferent people, Doctor, without room for kindness. You don't have a solution for everything. Your solutions are to trust your humans or to trust the whims of the universe. And this--" the Master's hands on his wrists tighten almost painfully, and his face twists-- "is not mercy, Doctor."
The Doctor wrenches his hands away and stumbles back against the console. "It's the only thing I could do!"
"No, Doctor," the Master snaps. "That is not all. You could have killed me over and over until I ran out of regenerations. You could have imprisoned me in some remote place where I could hate you in peace. You chose to bring me with you out of guilt and loneliness, and that does not make you good or kind or right."
"Can we save it?" the Doctor snaps. "Can we please save this conversation for when I'm not trying to save these people?"
"And you always run away," the Master says relentlessly. "How shall we save them, Doctor? They will not leave. There is nothing to stay for. There is nothing you can do."
The Doctor can think of nothing to say. Silence stretches and thickens around them, and after a moment the look on the Master's face shifts subtly from mocking to something unreadable.
"There is nothing you can do," he repeats, but very softly, and suddenly the Doctor can read the expression on his face, vividly: understanding. The Master understands that saving the Cephei is not about finding the solution to a challenge, or about the Cephei themselves, nor even because it is right. It's about Gallifrey. It's about never letting anything die on his watch again. And in the face of that understanding the Doctor can feel some inner walls silently crumbling, and knows that the Master can see it, but the look on the Master's face does not shift to triumph.
Feeling nearly as though he's dreaming, the Doctor takes a step forward and then another and then he's got his face pressed to the Master's shoulder, shaking like mad, and the Master's arms wrap 'round him, hands rubbing small smoothing circles on his back.
"I forgive you," the Master whispers.
How long they stay thus infolded, the Doctor doesn't know, but neither of them want to let go. Eventually, the Doctor is the one to break away, and then they can't quite look at each other, and he says, awkwardly, "I should-- go tell them. They'll need to evacuate or they'll die."
"...I'll come with you," the Master says. When the Doctor looks up at him involuntarily in astonishment, the Master's eyebrows just go up a little, so the Doctor smiles hesitantly and goes out and down the corridor, the Master following.
When they reach the mothership's control room, however, the Cephei are all milling about and talking and waving their tentacles excitedly. The Doctor and the Master slide down into the amphitheatre and Xeph rushes over, its skin rippling with excitement. "Thank you!" it says happily. "Oh, thank you!"
"What?" the Doctor says, utterly bewildered.
"Your ship and the mothership," Xeph explains, shivering all over with happiness, "have been communicating. Exchanging information. It just began to come up on the mothership's displays-- she's learned how to fly, and she's transferring the information to the other ships even now."
The Doctor starts to grin in proud astonishment. "So you'll be able to leave your planet and take your ships."
"Yes!" Xeph says, and is so overcome with happiness that it wraps its tentacles around the Doctor's legs in a shivery enthusiastic hug, and the Master has to catch his elbow to keep him from falling over.
They receive the same treatment from a number of deliriously happy Cephei while making their way back out of the control room, but after assuring Xeph that their survival is all the thanks the Doctor needs, they finally manage to get away and walk back up the corridor towards the TARDIS. The waterbed quality of the floor, far from being a little unbalancing, actually makes the Doctor bounce a bit as he walks, and he can't stop grinning. When he glances at the Master, though, the Master's face is impassive. When they reach the TARDIS, the Doctor pauses to give her a brief, loving pat of thanks before they go into the control room and he shuts the door.
"So," he says, looking straight at the Master. The terrible crackling tension is still there, but its edge is somehow less dangerous. The Doctor's still scared, but now it's the right kind of fear. "Where now?"
The Master frowns a little and opens his mouth, but at that precise moment the Doctor's mobile rings. That means Martha, so he says, "Sorry, hang on a moment," and answers it. "Martha?"
"Are you busy right now?" Martha's voice asks without preamble. The Doctor's not an expert, but she doesn't sound happy.
"No," he says, eyebrows going up a little. "Just saved a planet, thanks for asking, but we're between sightseeing spots. What's going on?"
"I-- need to talk to you," Martha says. "Let's-- let's go out for lunch or something. Soon as we can." A pause. "Please, Doctor?"
"Tomorrow," the Doctor says. "How's your tomorrow looking?"
"Wonderful," Martha says, sounding relieved almost to tears. "Tuesday the eighth?"
"I'll be there," the Doctor says; there's a brief discussion of food and a street address is given.
"Thanks," Martha whispers, and hangs up.
"Wherever it is you wanted to go," the Doctor tells the Master, going to the console, "it will have to wait. I think Martha Jones needs a doctor."
He sets a course.
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