The world was fresh, but the scene in the skies ancient, cosmically so. The only inhabitant of this new planet carefully flipped open a canvas chair and sat in it. It was structured to recline slightly, and she stared at the night sky. Not that night meant anything here on this world without a sun.
Above her, two galaxies were smashing in to each other. Their vast arms, each one filled with uncountable numbers of stars, were folding over themselves like mating octopuses. Even in the short time she had been here, building this nothing-planet, this globe of ash and debris, she had noticed flares as stars collided and died in gouts of boiling hydrogen. Nebulae grew from the stardust, puffed and billowed into shapes she could briefly nickname (“The Whale”, “The Ice Cream”, “The Deformed Rabbit”) before they blew themselves out in the unstoppable momentum of the galactic crash.
She had been travelling for a long time. Centuries, millennia. Across time and space, and all relative dimensions. She had seen so much, and it was only occasionally as grand and beautiful as this. Usually galactic collisions took place over millions of years, but this one – when the Afteos Galaxy smashed into the Rumetric Spiral – took just 67 months and two days. She’d been meaning to catch it for so long.
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, slipped on a pair of sunglasses and picked up a flask she’d placed by the camp chair a few minutes earlier, having fished it out of the console of her ship. 67 months. She might have brought a more comfortable chair but, oh well.
There was very little sound, that was the interesting thing. You might reasonably expect a howling multi-solar wind even at this distance, but it happened mostly in silence, except for that grinding, rushing noise like a key being dragged up a piano wire. Oh no, hang on, that was here. She almost recognised it. It sounded a little like the time she’d tried to take off in the middle of a gravity well. As it faded into a blarting whoosh, she looked around, pushing her sunglasses up into her hair.
Behind her was a blue box. Deeply incongruous on this ball of snaggled rock. She recognised it as a TARDIS, of course, you don’t mistake that sort of thing. The door opened and out stumbled a woman in a long, flowing dove-grey coat that almost but didn’t quite get tangled around her legs as she placed her boots on the uncertain surface of the moon.
“Hello!” called the woman. “Is this …. “ she took in the absurd, ramshackle planetoid. “Well, clearly it isn’t. Look at this place, it’s amazing, looks like it’s made of old tin cans!” she looked at her with sudden directness “Did you make this? It’s very impressive. I’m a bit of a tinkerer myself.” She finished with a broad smile, the seriousness vanished in a breathless instant.
“Yes, I did, thank y-” she started, flattered, then recomposed herself. “How did you even know it was here? It doesn’t show up on any charts.”
The strange woman was on one knee now, patting the ground. She had produced a jeweller’s glass from nowhere and was examining a small chunk she had pulled from the surface. “Oh, you know. Time and space and… stuff. Got a bit of a talent for finding odd things in the universe. You’d know about that.”
She shrugged, a barely noticeable motion. Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. She wasn’t committing to anything.
“I’m The Doctor,” she said and paused, as if expecting a reaction. When none was forthcoming, she turned her back and pulled out a bashed up lump of metal that made the familiar wheedling trill of a sonic screwdriver. “So your TARDIS is around here somewhere, then. Good chameleon circuit! Never really went for that myself but always nice when it works. So!” The Doctor grinned as if she was about to suggest getting a takeaway. “Who are you, and how did you manage to escape from Gallifrey?”
She had big plans, when she was younger. When she was a different woman. She wanted to see the world – no, bigger plans. The worlds. As many as possible. She took a TARDIS on what was ostensibly a routine patrol around the borders of Gallifrey (it was a time of peace, a time when Daleks were little more than an occasional irritant) and simply never returned.
There was an aspect of the TARDIS technology that was underexplored; the ability to traverse relative dimensions. Time Lords spent all their energy on time, which was right there in the name of course, but there was so much more out there. She spent her next lifetimes shifting between realities. Sometimes finding herself in claustrophobic pocket universes – a realm of endless fire criss-crossed by black cabs and shambling scarecrows was a low point – sometimes in parallel worlds that resembled her own so precisely it made her question why she would even bother coming. In one universe the only difference she ever found was that pigeons didn’t appear to exist, which made it ever so slightly better than her home reality.
Eventually indifferent to the trivial differences between realites, she sought out spectacle. Events that were unique or of cosmic significance. From the birth of the universe to its quiet, unassuming, frankly slightly dull death, she had seen more than any being alive.
Her name, now, was The Witness.
“Oh right,” said the Doctor. “You came, you saw, you left, got it. So you’re here to watch the Afteos-Rumetric Event. Can’t blame you – spectacular stuff up there right now.” On cue, one star drew close to another and for a brief moment the two circled each other before colliding and exploding with what, at this distance, sounded a little like a pop.
“And why are you here?”
“I didn’t have anything better to do, I suppose,” the Doctor jammed her hands into her coat pockets. “Thought I might try to stop it.”
“You can’t,” the Witness sat forward. “It’s a fixed point in time!”
“Yeah. Well. I’ve dealt with a lot of them.”
The Witness and the Doctor exchanged a very long look, ended when the Doctor spotted an object by the camp chair.
“A Thermos! Brilliant!” she picked up the small tartan flask. “You don’t get enough Thermos flasks in space, you know. Which is a real shame, in my opinion, because they’re vacuum sealed and what’s better in a vacuum than another, smaller vacuum?”
She unscrewed the lid and poured a small quantity of the contents into the lid. “Look at that! Fresh coffee! It’s like magic, isn’t it?”
The Witness jumped up from her chair and snatched the flask back from the Doctor’s hands. “My fresh coffee, thank you.” In the sky, a flare brighter than most suns put the artificial planet into the sunniest of summer days before abruptly fading into darkness. The Doctor pulled down a pair of smoked goggles and stared upwards.
“Lots of people are dying right now,” said The Doctor, quietly. “Millions. Billions. A planet, a solar system at a time. And you’re just watching that?”
“I’ve seen a lot of death,” The Witness replied. “So much. First hand, up close. I’ve seen it remotely. I once saw Gallifrey, my own home – our own home – razed to the ground by Cybermen and every single person I knew and loved converted. A different Gallifrey,” she added, holding up a hand at the Doctor’s expression. “A different universe. But those faces were the same, I knew them all. Maybe I was out there, behind a metal face. Upgraded.”
They both stood in silence for a moment, deep in their own memories, staring upwards. Fire trailed from one edge of the sky to the other, something enormous but so distant it barely lit their upturned faces.
“Never used to take 67 months,” said the Doctor. “The collision, I mean. I have records of it taking well over a hundred years. Reliable records. I even saw it happen, once. Which leads me to wonder how you consider this a fixed point in time when it is quite obviously broken?”
The Witness shrugged, lightly, and sat back down.
“You know what I’m also wondering about? How come my sonic couldn’t locate your TARDIS at all. Even a good chameleon circuit should turn up a trace, and all I’m getting is a transmat signature,” she waved the odd sonic lump around again and looked at the readout. “Dalek tech, so I’m guessing you stole it, but I’m not here to judge. Let she who is without sin, etc etc.”
“I’ve abandoned my TARDIS,” The Witness didn’t meet the Doctor’s eye as she said it. “I’ve given up travelling.”
“Abandoned it?” The Doctor looked genuinely shocked. “It’s not… a junk automobile! A TARDIS isn’t a piece of equipment to drop on some planet, it’s a… wait, you’ve given up travelling to live here? On this? With a camp chair, a Thermos of coffee and a box of sandwiches? No. That’s not it, is it? You’re here-”
“-to die, yes.”
“Last regeneration?” The Witness nodded. “Sick?” She shook her head, no. “Just too old? Seen too much? Oh, tell me about it. I’ve been there. I got to the end, ran out of road and somehow I just kept going. More road appeared, don’t ask me how. The great benevolence of the Time Lord Council!”
“You’re trying to tell me you were gifted further regenerations?” The Doctor nodded, eyes bright. The Witness thought about it, then turned away. “I don’t care. I’ve seen enough to last twelve more lives. I just want it over.”
“So here we are. I suppose you might want a bit of company?” Silence. “No, suppose not. Fair enough. And I did say I was going to stop the collision, didn’t I? Tell you what, it’d be really useful to have a second TARDIS, is there any chance I … could…”
The Doctor followed her gaze to the brightest star in the sky, right in the centre of the colliding galaxies. Finally, The Witness realised, The Doctor had figured it out. Horror and panic met on the other Time Lord’s face, crashing together in a mirror of the spectacle above them.
“You can’t be serious! You’re forcing it to tear itself apart to pull those two galaxies together!”
“We’re both going out together,” said The Witness with some satisfaction. “We agreed. Me, and my oldest, my only friend.”
“No, no, no,” the Doctor stammered. “You don’t understand. You don’t get it. No. This isn’t just a big explosion! Trust me, I know. A TARDIS being destroyed is too much for the fabric of the universe, you’re going to tear reality apart – you’re going to extinguish everything!”
The Witness smiled, and sipped some coffee. “I’ve seen so much.”
“Well. I can tell you one thing you haven’t seen before. In all these universes, in all this time. I can tell. In the way you’ve spoken, by the events you’ve stood by and watched happen. One thing you’ve never witnessed, Witness.”
“And what is that?”
Back in her TARDIS, The Doctor ran in a loop around the console, flipping switched, pulling levers, winding gears. Her hands flat on the vibrating machinery, she stared at a screen. A crack was spreading across it – a strange new shape, but the way it spilled light was horribly familiar. Small now. Maybe she could stop it. How did it go last time?
“Oh yeah, I had to reboot the universe. Not really keen on doing that again. Who knows what happens if you keep doing it? Probably void the warranty.”
She spun on her heel and went to open the door. Beyond was a slow-motion explosion in space. A TARDIS dying. Well.
“Been there, done that. Now, if this were my TARDIS, I wouldn’t have let it happen in the first place,” she paused and listened to her own words. “Not helping.” She spun a dial. The great pulsing crystals in the centre of the console made a grinding noise, like two planes of existence rubbing together. Or, more prosaically, two giant balloons. “Right, can’t go back to before it started, didn’t think so, worth a try, eh?”
The Witness settled down in her chair again. Poured out a cup of coffee. The Doctor was right, it was nothing short of miraculous, the way it retained its heat. It tasted sensational still, but then she’d used the very best beans, the ones from the high plains of Lemb, where the sun shines only for three months every three hundred years and creates the most perfect crop of coffee beans. Enough for one flask. This would be the last one anyone would taste.
“Why though?” said The Doctor from just behind her. The Witness was so startled she jumped slightly, spilling the coffee. “Why here, why now? Why choose this universe?”
“Does it matter?” she shrugged, dabbing at her jacket with a handkerchief. “ I was here. I don’t have a connection to this reality. I just let my TARDIS take me to the nearest one.”
“You know, I’ve known evil people,” said the Doctor, walking beneath the flaming sky. “I’ve known real monsters. I’ve seen the Dalek civilisation, all of it, bread rolls to coffee. Watched mad dictators declare death to whole worlds, doomsday devices and everything. But here you are, with your neatly packed lunch and your hot coffee – which smells delicious by the way – and your folding chair and your sensible trousers and you’re the most evil of the lot. You’re condemning an entire universe to oblivion because you’re bored. Because you’re tired. Because you want to see what happens. Well, let me tell you about tired. I may only have one universe, but I’ve seen more than you’ll ever know. I’ve seen what’s really important, I’ve seen the best in this universe and the worst. The spectacular and the depraved, I’ve seen what you cannot from your viewpoint.”
“I’ve seen everything, Doctor,” The Witness sighed. “You can’t appeal to my sense of adventure here, it’s exhausted.”
“You’re wrong,” The Doctor started smiling, a wild look gaining her eyes. “You are so wrong – you’ve seen a grain of sand and thought it was the beach. You’ve looked all your life through the wrong end of the telescope.”
The Witness sat impassive. Pushed her sunglasses higher up her nose. Looked back to the sky.
“Right.” The Doctor walked away, back to her distant TARDIS.
“Are you sure I can’t show you something, while I’m here?” she said, lightness returning to her tone as she reappeared by the folding chair. The Witness sighed.
“Will you leave me alone if I say yes?” she asked. The Doctor nodded. “And you’ll bring me back here when you’ve shown me this… marvel?”
“Oh, the very spot, to the very second. Your coffee won’t even be cold. You know I can.”
“One last trip couldn’t hurt.”
“Exactly! Couldn’t hurt. Come on, then.”