“You gave them the transmat!”
“Call it a shortcut,” the Doctor said, mildly. “You took away almost a century. Those people needed time, and they no longer have it. Oron, she was smart, she can figure out how the transmat operates and incorporate it into their ship design. Few hops with that and they’re in another galaxy altogether, one that isn’t unexpectedly crashing into its neighbour.”
“Do you always do that?” The Witness sat straight up in her folding chair, fingertips pressed together. “Interfere, I mean. There’s no way they could have left their planet without your intervention. So a single planet dies. It’s a big universe. Why get involved?”
“Every single person on that planet has a life to live, and if you hadn’t come along they’d all have made it to the end of that life AND would have made sure the next generation could do the same. Now you saw them. They were working themselves every second they could just to spare themselves the sight of their children dying.”
“But you’ve stopped that,” there was a slight note of pleading in the Witness’s voice now. “You gave them the transmat.”
“For them, yes,” the Doctor stood in front of the Witness, framed by Afteos at one shoulder and the bulk of the Rueatric Spiral at the other. “Can you tell me how many other planets there are out there? All of them with people as scared and confused as the ones you met today. Some of them will escape, but not many. They’ll work themselves to the bone, and for nothing.”
“This is not my-”
“Or they’ll throw the rest of their short lives away trying to appease the inferno on the horizon. They’ll kill each other, looking to find the ones to blame. And that’s not the end of it. Those who escape this won’t escape your last little surprise, will they? As your TARDIS takes the universe with it into oblivion. There’s no distance far enough that can outrun that, is there?”
“There’s nothing I-”
“Can I have a coffee?” the Doctor’s sudden change of direction was so disorientating the Witness rocked back in her chair. “Sorry, it’s just I’ve been smelling it all this time and it’s so good. Lemb, right? The best.”
In silence, the Witness poured the Doctor a small cup of the precious coffee. She took it, breathing in the bitter steam. For a moment, there was total silence on the junkyard planet.
“I love those moments,” she said, quietly. “Little bits of quiet. Sometimes it’s even quiet enough that the inside of your head stops, just for a second, and you don’t have to think of anything. Only a second, but even in thousands of years of life those seconds stand out. Do you know what I mean?”
“Not in my head.”
“Didn’t think so,” the Doctor took a sip. “What are you thinking about right now?”
“Got to admit, I wasn’t expecting that answer.”
“You said it earlier – a vacuum in a vacuum,” the WItness said, jaw tight to hold back excitement. “That’s how you could stop it. Or… slow it down. No, no, you could stop the end of the, the end of this universe.”
“With a flask?” The Doctor looked baffled.
“With a TARDIS!” The WItness stood up, holding the flask in front of her face. “You’re clearly very clever, Doctor, and yes I get it, I’m a monster. I can’t do anything to help those people, not now. But I know things you’ve never even dreamed of trying to work out, and I can save… everyone else. I can save them from me. Get into your stupid blue box, I’ll show you what it can do.”
A vacuum inside a vacuum. Unlimited space inside unlimited space, a universe within a universe. The Doctor had seen other realities, once or twice, mostly accidentally, but the Witness lived them. She knew how to shift the TARDIS not just back and forth, but across, somehow. She sketched out, very briefly, a plan to push her exploding time machine into an empty plane of existence, to let the energy it was kicking out flash across the thinnest membrane of reality, harming no-one. It sounded impossibly difficult, but she looked confident and almost happy.
“No, that one,” she barked at the Doctor, who moved her hand to the lever on her right. “Ok, down on that. We need to push the Heart of the TARDIS into unphased synchronisation with the universal entropic outersphere.”
“I don’t know what that means! I always know what that sort of thing means, but I’ve got no clue and I love it!” shouted the Doctor as the TARDIS made groaning noises she had never before heard.
“We’re putting your TARDIS around mine, materialising it inside the Heart!”
The Doctor stopped what she was doing to stare across at the Witness, who was now galloping around the console with a wild look in her eye.
“That’ll kill her!” the Doctor screamed. “You can’t..!”
“Trust me,” the Witness yelled back above the screams of the TARDIS. “Your box will be fine!” There was a very loud bang, and something fizzed in the distance. “Mostly fine!”
The Doctor grabbed a monitor to check the readout “That was the casino!”
“You’re a gambler??”
“I just like the ambience!”
“Look, It’s all about containment. We might lose a room or two but we’re trying to contain the explosion just long enough to pop it into the empty gap between universes”
“And you’ve never seen the impossible?” cried the Witness, bringing both hands down on the console and drawing the most distressing howl yet from the aching machine. The Doctor simply held on as the whole of reality rattled her teeth. The giant crystalline column in the console’s centre ground against itself, lit from inside with a painful intensity. There was an unnerving sensation of being inside out, and the Doctor’s memory of the very first trip through time she ever took, as a child on Gallifrey, lashed out into her seasick mind.
The TARDIS broke through the walls of everything, and into the void of nothing.
Across the star systems of the Afteos Galaxy, in the far arms of the Rumetric Spiral, there was a name spoken in awe and reverence. The saviour of civilisations, the bringer of hope. One woman, travelling in a curious box, who would turn up one day and nudge the right people in the right direction. Where the future had seemed bleak, she would come and give them light in the darkness. She seemed to know exactly how to help, to turn nascent spacefaring programmes into interstellar escape routes.
Over a century, there would be refugees turning up in far galaxies, talking of her. How she worked to make them safe, tireless and cheerful to the day she disappeared, as suddenly as she arrived. No one could really say how many people she saved from the collision of the two galaxies. No one was able to keep a count. Most of them called her “the Healer”.
On a distant rock, barely noticeable in the vastness of space, there was a blue box and a chair. The Doctor picked up the lunchbox that had been left by the chair, and the flask. The sandwiches seemed fresh, so she ate one.
“You’re going to leave the coffee for me, though?” said the Witness. Her TARDIS was small, grey, unadorned, a utility vehicle. They had picked it up on an abandoned Gallifrey in some far-distant universe; the Witness had refused to be drawn on what might have happened to the Time Lords there.
“I said it wouldn’t even be cold,” the Doctor replied, handing it over.