The people of Samesh, on the planet Hyllt, were busy. While some watched the sky, others toiled over mechanical wonders, or delved into layers of physics that bordered on magic. They worked quickly, determinedly, but they had almost no time to reach their goal. They were, as a city, nation, planet, doomed.
In the central library, in a mostly-empty side room, a small disturbance blew some papers around, flipped open a carelessly dropped book, then stopped. In the silence that followed, a door swung open in the newly-arrived blue box in the stacks. Two women stepped out.
“This is a library,” said one, the taller of the two, gazing down at the other with hard, dark eyes. “I have seen many libraries.”
“Course you have,” said the other – smaller, blonde, with a wide open face and a chaotic energy bound tight inside her voice. “Not here to show you books. Although if you’d like to take a quick peek? They won’t exist in a few months, you’ll never get to read them or anything else ever again.”
“A cheap trick, I’ve read more than enough. I’m hardly likely to be swayed by additional literature. Or the loss of it.”
Tarres, assistant chief under-librarian, cleared his throat.
“Oh hello, didn’t see you there,” said the shorter woman, fixing Tarres with the most cheerful smile he’d ever encountered. Several lifetimes of cheer seemed to beam from it. “I’m The Doctor, this rather grumpy lady here is The Witness. Would you mind showing us the nearest window?”
“Uhhh,” Tarres, caught briefly between outrage and sheer bewilderment, decided it was easier simply to comply. Although he was technically the highest-ranking person in the library, following the conscription of the chief under-librarian for their four month enforced research opportunity, he suddenly felt outranked by this Doctor. He led the way to the Astrolabe Window. It wasn’t, he confessed in his mind, actually the nearest but it was the most impressive.
“What, uh, what kind of Doctor, anyway?” he asked as they walked. “Physics, chemistry, astronomy?”
“Oh yes,” The Doctor affirmed, unhelpfully.
“I expect you’ll have been conscripted already, then,” Tarres chattered. “Thank you for your service, Doctor! All our greatest minds working for the cause!”
“What cau-” the taller woman, the Witness, started to ask, but then they stepped in front of the Astrolabe Window.
It was vast, occupying the entire wall of the cathedral-like library. A wheel within a wheel, stars and planets picked out in coloured glass against an ink-blue sky. This was the work, Tarres explained, of one hand. Centuries ago, the greatest librarian of the age, Gorian Helm, used every star map and astronomical text available to create a precise visual description of the heavens. Sadly, since the trouble started it has been almost useless. “But,” he added. “Of course, it’s not that the Astrolabe Window is wrong. The sky is wrong.”
“Show me a real window,” there was a flat urgency in the Doctor’s voice now. “Show me the sky.”
Two years ago, the skies ignited. The government of Samesh was quick to act – other nations dragged their feet, decided it would all be over soon, that it was important to show the sky that they would not be cowed by a mere celestial conflagration. But not Samesh. They put their best minds to it, finding it necessary to conscript them to the great state research departments. As a nation they were proud of their scientific endeavours. It was expected, before the trouble started, that they would be the first to send one of their cosmonauts out into deep space.
The Doctor listened to Tarres explaining this as she stared at the maelstrom. It was distant, much less extravagant than on The Witness’s viewing planetoid. But it transmitted an unmistakable threat. It was, and everyone in Samesh knew it, the end of everything they knew.
“It’s the end of everything anyone knows,” breathed the Doctor. The Witness looked unimpressed.
“Do you expect me to see people and have a change of heart, Doctor?” she asked. “I fear you’ve underestimated me. I know what I’m doing, what I have done.”
“These people were on the verge of interstellar flight, do you understand that?” the Doctor was angry now. “Given another hundred years, they would have been capable of intergalactic travel. They would have had the technology to escape this.”
“It honestly doesn’t matter to me. Is this really what you brought me here to see?”
“No,” said the Doctor, turning to Tarres. “Tarres, wasn’t it? Tarres, can you help me out here? Where do you keep your boffins?”
The Institute of Neo-Astrological Phenomenology was housed in a large building in the capital city of Lilden, repurposed from an old tyre factory. No one used tyres any more; maglev was the standard way to move around Samesh so the large building, with its high ceilings and tall windows, was perfect. It was where one would spends one’s four month enforced research opportunity, but some of the scientists, mechanics and engineers would stay for longer. Some had been there from the start, since the Institute opened its slightly rubber-smelling doors in response to the change in the night sky.
Oron was once a lecturer in Astrophysics at the University of Samesh (formerly Lilden Technical College). She gave up her tenured position the moment The INAP was established, and had quickly become seen as a great authority. It was she who had first realised it was an intergalactic collision, and her theory that it was going to consume the planet in less than three years was almost universally accepted. This had pushed those at work in the Institute harder than they could have imagined. It had changed the way they lived, thought, worked. The brooding menace on the edge of the world never gave them peace.
The man Tarres, whom she recognised vaguely as an adjunct to one of her researchers, apologised for disturbing her, but there were some… very odd, very knowledgeable ladies who were very keen to talk to her about the.. the trouble. “They pretty much frog-marched me here from the library,” he said, apologetically. “But I really do think they might be able to help you, in your research.”
“Oh, fine, fine, fine, good, yes, send them in,” Oron said on the outbreath of her sigh. Tarres turned but the door was already open and a woman unknown to her was halfway across the room.
“Love this! Old tyre factory? Still whiffs a bit, doesn’t it? Can’t get that smell out. Hello, I’m the Doctor, that’s The Witness,” she pointed over to a dark-haired, reserved woman dressed like an archive, who folded her arms and leaned against the doorframe. “She probably won’t say anything but that’s ok, I’ll say too much so it all balances out. I’m the Doctor, by the way, no, said that already.”
“Tarres said you may know something about…?” Oron came to the point.
“Ah. Yes, that’s true,” the Doctor looked at the walls. “I see you’ve figured out it’s an intergalactic collision. No one ever thinks about the planets involved with one of those, do they? So many lives, and here you are, working away to stop it. But you can’t stop it can you?”
“Can’t stop it, no. Might be able to give you a bit of advice for how to outrun it, though.”
“You can’t outrun the collapse of every star system in a fifty-thousand light year radius,” Oron told her, tears of frustration and fury standing out in her eyes. “Are you here to talk nonsense or help with the project?”
“I never miss the opportunity to do both,” the Doctor said. She found a photo of a small boy in a frame on a near shelf. “Your son? He looks very happy.”
“He is,” Oron said, reaching for the frame. “He barely knows what’s going on, thankfully.” Before she could take the picture from her hands, the Doctor handed it casually to the Witness. Not expecting this, she fumbled the frame and managed to push a small button on the side of the glass. The image rippled, then seemed to animate. The boy peered at the unfamiliar face of the Witness.
“Mummy?” the voice from the frame sounded sleepy and confused. The Witness had a look of panic in her eyes as she thrust it towards Oron. “What’s happening?”
“Nothing sweetie,” soothed Oron, snatching the frame. “Sorry, called you by mistake. Were you asleep?”
“Just having my nap,” mumbled the boy. “Daddy says you’re coming home next week, will you bring me a present?”
“Of course. Now get back to sleep.”
“I’m going to have breakfast. We’ve got fruit! Bye, Mummy! Love you!”
“Love you too, sweetie,” said Oron, gazing fondly as the screen melted back to a still photograph.
“A present!” The Doctor exclaimed as she sat down and put her feet on the desk. “Kids never understand when you’re working, do they? So… what’s the project, what are you going to do?”
“We’re trying to escape,” said Oron quietly. “We were so close to full space travel. We might just be able to build, I don’t know, a generation ship. Get our children safely away from here.”
“And how far do you think they could go, these children?”
“I don’t know,” Oron said, sitting down heavily in her leather chair. “Far enough. Far enough that they could outlive us, at least. Far enough that they wouldn’t have to watch us die.” She noticed the Doctor look over to the Witness, who did not return her gaze.
“And you don’t have to watch them.”
“You’re developing that ship here?” scoffed the Witness in the silence that followed. “In less than three years from almost a standing start?”
“What else could we do? You can’t stop two galaxies in their tracks! Who knows, if we had more time, we could have done more. But we don’t.”
“No,” the Doctor stood up. “I’m sorry. I wish you did. Oh!” she suddenly brightened up, reaching into one of the inner pockets of her coat. “Tell you what, have this. Might help, might not. Anyway, I’ve just remembered that we’ve got to go, come on Witness, back to my TARDIS.”
“But that’s…” protested the Witness.
“I know, but you don’t need it any more!” the Doctor called from the corridor. And with that, they were gone, and Oron was in the quiet of her office once again. She turned the small disc the Doctor had given her over in her hands. It was brass, or something like brass, and pulsed with energy. Lights moved across it in unfamiliar patterns, heading to a spot near the rim. Tentatively, she put a finger on the spot and-