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The TARDIS Crew - Vol. 1: The Daleks' Master Plan

Chapter Text

“Doctor, I want to leave.”

The Doctor didn’t reply; in fact, he didn’t even move from where he stood, right in front of the TARDIS panel control. For a moment, Vicki thought he hadn’t heard her. After all, they were in the middle of a battle. All around them, the Greek army was busy in sacking and burning Troy, and even with the protection provided by the walls of the TARDIS, they could distinctly hear the screams and feel the smell of the fire. Vicki started to repeat, but then the Doctor abruptly spoke.

“May I know why?”

There was sadness in his voice, underneath the seemingly calm tone, and his face was still obstinately turned in the other direction as if he could not bear to look at her. A sudden urge of pity rushed through Vicki, and the girl ran and hugged him tightly, fighting back the tears.

“Oh, now, now, child” the Doctor scolded her, without returning her hug. “You don’t need this. Just tell me why you’re leaving.”

“I’m sorry, Doctor, really…”

“Yes, yes, yes! Just tell me what it is!” he insisted, pushing her away, with some violence. That proved to be the very hard part for Vicki. She knew from the start that the Doctor would react badly at her leaving, just as he had done with Ian and Barbara; but she hoped that he would have given her the chance to give him a proper goodbye, completed with a hug and some wishes for good luck. And instead, he didn't even look at her, he kept giving her his back and fixing his eyes on the TARDIS panel: a cold, distant figure, so different from the kind, enthusiastic old man she loved. That was not the way she wanted this to go, not in the least.

But then, if he wanted to do it that way, well, so be it. She would have still given him her own piece of mind, as she had always done, without getting angry or nasty at him.

“I met someone, a boy, and I… I am in love with him. I want to stay here with him, start a family and have my own life.”

The Doctor sighed and finally turned towards her. "A boy, eh?” asked, with a mischievous tone.

“Yes, a boy.”

“And you want to leave me for him.”

“Doctor, it’s not like that…”

"No, no, of course, it isn't" sighed the old man. "It never is" added, lost in the distant memory of another young girl with black hair, who made the same choice.

“Doctor” insisted Vicki, “I love you. Really, I do. When I met you, I lost everything I had, and the only friend left to me was a liar, who used me to save his own skin. You gave me a new home, a new family, and led me to see things I never imagined I would see: Rome, Jerusalem, Vortis, Ceres, Winter… It was new and exciting, and all so wonderful, and you were kind to me and gentle, and… Doctor, I will never thank you enough for everything."

“And yet, you’re leaving me.”

“Not because you have ever failed me. It’s just that… I want to belong somewhere. I need to stay in one place and make a difference, not just… pass through like a shadow in the night. Please, Doctor, try to understand…”

"I do," said the Doctor. "You should remember you are not the first one to say these things to me" he added. "You are just repeating what Ian and Barbara said when we found that Dalek time machine."

“And you let them go.”

“Because you persuaded me to do so. You said it was up to them.”

“And I abide by that. It was up to them, as it is up to me now.”

“Yeah, I suppose so” the Doctor concluded, with a resigned sigh, and finally opening their arms to hug her tightly. “I shall miss you, child. I really shall. You have no idea of the comfort you have this given to an old buffalo like me.” Vicki smiled and didn’t reply; she was too busy weeping on the shoulder of the man she has come to see as a father. They stayed like this for what seemed centuries; then, finally, they parted, and she moved towards the door of the time machine.

“Oh, by the way, child," said the Doctor, ready to open the door, "before you go, may I at least know who's the lucky fellow?"

"His name's Troilus" Vicki replied, smiling. "He is a son of Priam, a prince of Troy. Well, no more prince, I guess, since the city is burning…"

“What? Troilus? A prince of Troy?” exclaimed the Doctor, with a voice so full of sudden anguish and horror to make Vicki start.

“W-well, yes” confirmed Vicki, unsure of what had gotten into him. “We met recently, and he is nice and brave…"

“Never mind that, never mind that!” the Doctor urged. “You said that he was a prince, a son of Priam. Are you sure of that?”

“Of course, I am! I lived there in the last few days after they brought the TARDIS here."

“And what else do you about him?”

"Well, nothing too personal, we have spoken only a few times, but I am sure he is the right one" insisted Vicki. She started to feel like the female characters of those old romantic movies from the XXth century, always defending their choice in front of their parents or friends. Were it not for the fact that the Doctor looked awfully serious, she would have been amused by that. "He was even generous enough to go and look for Steven now in the battle, even if he is dressed as a Greek…”

“Steven… who went here with the name of Diomedes… Oh, my goodness!” the Doctor commented, bringing a hand to his mouth in horror.

“Oh come now, Doctor, what’s the matter?” Vicki exclaimed. “You were so calm a minute ago about me leaving!”

No answer came from the Time Lord, but the look he gave her frightened Vicki to the core. She knew that look. It was the same look he had when they realized what the Daleks were doing to the human colony on Winter, or when they found out that Steven was dispersed on Shade chased by the Chaons. It was the most desperate look she ever saw in her life, a look that said that everything was lost, that what they witnessed was just too horrible to be even thought about.

"My child," said the Doctor eventually, gathering all his strength, "have you ever heard the story of Troilus and Cressida?"

"That is the name Troilus knows me by," said Vicki in an atone voice. The Doctor took a long breath and clapped his hand in anguish, lowering his head for a moment before speaking.

“It is one of the myths connected to the Trojan War. Troilus, prince of Troy, the youngest son of Priam, falls in love with Cressida, daughter of Chalcas the seer, who has passed to the Greeks. He is reciprocated, but her father sends for her, and Priam accepts giving her to the enemy. Troilus goes looking for her in the camp, only to discover she betrayed him for Diomedes, the Greek warrior she had been given as a slave. Distressed and disheartened, he goes to fight, and he dies in battle by the hand of Achilles, while trying to avenge his brother, Hector.”

Silence fell as Vicki took a step away from the Doctor, her brain trying to process what he just told her. Was he… no, there was no… but then… “W-what are you trying to say?” she finally asked.

“Ever since we landed here, the people we met acted like their counterpart in Greek myths, and even if they did not speak and behave as the legends say, their actions have all followed the patterns of the legend. We landed during the duel between Achilles and Hector, and Hector was slain in front of us. I met Odysseus and gave him the idea of using the wooden horse to conquer Troy, and look, the city has been burned. Diomedes is already dead, but Steven took his armour and his name and… well, you as Cressida obviously showed affection for him…”

“But I did not betray Troilus! And I am not the daughter of… of…”

“Chalcas. No, you are not, the same way you and Steven do not have the relationship of the legend. And yet, you sent a Trojan prince in the midst of battle, searching for an enemy.”

“Stop it!” Vicki cried, her anguish becoming painfully evident in her voice. “You can’t be sure! I mean… it’s a legend, it is not said that…"

“You are right” replied the Doctor, moving to the console. “And we will see it soon enough” added, starting to move his fingers across the panel. “If I can properly adjust the scanner, we should be able to look for Troilus, and see what befalls him. If we found out he is alive and well, I’ll let you go with him as you wish.”

Vicki nodded, and rushed towards the scanner, waiting for the Doctor to operate it. The lid covering the screen came out slowly, too slowly for her heart pumping in her chest like crazy, cutting her breath. She has never felt this anguished before; not when on Dido she learned about her father’s death, not when Steven had been taken prisoner by the Daleks on Shade, not even when on T19 the Doctor had nearly died leaving her once again alone. Her hands clasped together without her even realizing it, when pictures, at last, started appearing, showing the vast landscape of plans surrounding Troy, now red with the fire of the burning city. The Doctor moved around the scanner, passing from man to man, from duel to duel, until finally, Vicki recognised Troilus, standing face to face with a tall, dark man, whose armour was covered in blood.

“Achilles” muttered the Doctor. Vicki’s blood ran cold hearing that name, and she stuttered back against the console. She stood there, insensible to anything going on around her, to Steven arriving injured at the TARDIS with the help of a young maiden, to the Doctor arguing with Odysseus and then closing the door, to the Greek commander shouting orders to bring out wood to burn the TARDIS (which didn’t seem to bother the Doctor in the slightest). All her attention was focused on the screen, on the images unfolding on the surface, telling her a story that would change her life.

She saw Troilus run against Achilles, the sword in his hand and despair in his eyes. She saw the older, more expert warrior raise his shield in defence and, from underneath it, wait for the right moment. She saw Troilus attack again, and again, and again, in a vain attempt to injure his opponent, which expertly kept himself out of distance, well protected by his shield. And then, when Troilus was too tired to attack again, she saw Achille throwing away the shield and merge his sword in the young prince’s left side, down to the hilt. She watched in horror as Troilus screamed in pain, and Achilles retracting his sword only to hit him again, this time in the chest. Tears started forming in her eyes, as Troilus fell to the ground, bleeding to death, his helmet falling from his head. Achilles stood on him for one moment, as amazed by what he had done, and then he raised the sword one last time.

Vicki turned. She had seen enough.

The Doctor was standing there, watching her, a look of great pity and sorrow in her eyes. Bursting in tears, she ran towards him and hugged him tightly, crying on his shoulder. The Doctor held her close, caressing her hair with a gentle touch of his old, a familiar, comforting hand. Around them, the TARDIS hummed gently, as if the machine itself wanted to console her.

"We must go now," said the Doctor, detaching himself from her after a moment. "I don't think there is nothing more for us here."

Chapter Text

It took Vicki a while to come out of the painful stupor the grief put her into. While the TARDIS moved on, taking the travellers away from the burning Troy, the young girl, seated in the Doctor’s chair, remained silent and still, as if she had been turned to stone; she didn’t even weep, she just let the tears running down her cheeks. Even when the TARDIS finally landed, she didn’t move nor speak. She was lost in her world of grief, far from everything happening around her.

And then, she heard someone moaning, struggling to breathe. Almost mechanically, she moved her head to the left and saw Steven lying on the bench, a large wound opened in his side; the Doctor and a young girl she almost recognized, were attending to him. Her brain suddenly began to work again.

Steven was sick.

Steven had been wounded.

The same way Troilus was.

Which meant…

“Steven!” she cried out in horror, running to his side. “No, Steven!”

“V-Vicki…” said the man, raising a hand to reach her.

“No, no, please, not you too!” she insisted. “Doctor… you can save him, right?”

“My child…”

“Not ‘my child’ me!” she angrily replied. “Just cure him!”

“I am doing the best I can” answered the Doctor, trying not to get angry in his turn. “Luckily, this young woman brought him to the TARDIS in time. The wound is infected, but if, as I hope, we have landed on a civilized planet, we should be able to treat it properly.”

Vicki had no argument to reply, so she left the Doctor to check his instruments and directed her attention to the girl beside her. To her amazement, it was Katarina, the girl which had been assigned to her service by Priam.

“What are you doing here?”

“Noble Cressida, you said to bring your friend to the temple…”

“The name is Vicki, and I did not tell you to come inside the temple! Doctor, why have you let her…?”

“You were busy at the moment, and I needed help” the Doctor dismissed her. “Now, please, let me check on…”

“But you… can’t let her stay here! I mean, she is not… not… qualified for this!”

“Qualified?” asked her the Doctor.

“She has no idea how this works! She comes from a primitive time, she…”

“Are we on our way to the place of perfection, mighty Zeus?” asked Katarina, interrupting. At this comment of her, Vicki cast a very eloquent glance at the Doctor, something like See what I mean?

“Well…” said the Doctor, taking his moment to reply. “In a sense, child, yes, we are” he then uttered, talking to Katarina. “At least, I really hope so” added under his breath. “In the meantime, I shall be grateful if you will help us with our friend.”

“Couldn’t you just perform some miracle? You have the power of the gods, haven’t you?” Katarina asked again. The ingenuity in her voice was so sweet and honest that Vicki felt her stomach involuntarily clutching inside her. The poor girl really had no idea what she got into, and Vicki couldn’t help but tremble thinking at the moment she would realize it.

“Aah… yes” the Doctor tried to reply, embarrassed, “I see what you mean, but in order to do that, I need some substances of which I am currently short of. Now, let me look at the scanner and we then shall make some plans.” With that, the Doctor turned back to the console, ignoring Vicki’s look of reprehension. After all, they just needed to use just a little precaution and Katarina would be absolutely fine, just as the other young people usually travelling with him.

The scanner turned on, and on the screen appeared what looked like some kind of tropical jungle. Tall trees rose around the TARDIS, shrouding it in their shadow. Underneath them, the travellers could see some bushes whose branches ended in small, pointy extremities. The overall aspect of the place was indeed rather ominous.

“That does not seem a place of perfection,” said Katarina, quivering. Vicki had to agree with her, and almost unconsciously put her hands on the other’s shoulder, trying to comfort her. The Doctor, in his turn, was checking the atmosphere and their surroundings.

“Yes… yes… well, it appears we have landed on the planet Kembel, and in a rather civilized era too. Now, I want both of you to stay here and look after Steven while I’ll go looking for help. Keep the wound clean, use the scanner to keep an eye outside for any sign of danger and wait for me before doing any move. Is that clear?”

Katarina nodded, and, after a moment of hesitation, Vicki did it too. Usually, she would have insisted to go with the Doctor, but she did not trust leaving Steven in so bad shape with the young, inexperienced girl. She would rather stay and watch him.

“Good girls,” said the Doctor, delicately patting Katarina’s cheeks and briefly holding Vicki by the shoulder. Vicki almost hugged him in return, silently praying that nothing happened to the old man she had come to know and love. With another smile, the Doctor opened the door and ventured into the jungle.

The jungle was hot and dry outside the TARDIS’ door, and the Doctor took a moment to adapt to the new atmosphere before pressing on. He had tried to look reassuring in the eyes of the two girls, but in truth, he was rather worried. This was the year 4000, he saw it in the TARDIS’ time scanner, but Kembel was not a planet he remembered being very civilized: all the hopes they had of curing Steven at the moment were hanging on a very thin strand of hope. Then again, he didn’t have very much choice: he had no intention of losing the young man, not just for his personal fondness for him, but also because he didn’t want Vicki to suffer what he suspected would have been another heavy blow after Troilus’ death. He would have anything for that young girl, anything.

With these thoughts in mind, the Doctor passed on into the jungle, trying to see if he could spot any signs of civilization. And he did not have to go very far before he saw, down in a distant valley, a high concentration of lights: a city, or a town. He smiled, glad of his discovery, even when asking why on Gallifrey someone should have wanted to build a city here. Oh well, he was going to find out in any case, and rather soon. Just the time to warn Vicki and Katarina of his discovery, and then…

“Keep absolutely still,” said the man, holding him at gunpoint.

After the Doctor had left, Vicki started tending to Steven with the aid of Katarina. While she washed carefully the wound, Katarina kept mopping Steven’s brow with a towel, trying as hard as she could to get the temperature down. In spite of their inexperience, it seemed to work, albeit only partially: at least, Steven stopped turning and moaning, and now he seemed calmer. Slightly reassured, Vicki decided to trust Katarina alone with him for a little while: she desperately needed to change and wash. She also suspected that, quite soon, Katarina too would have needed some new clothes herself.

She had just managed to choose her new attire when she heard the TARDIS door open, which caused her to let out a sigh of utter relief. If the Doctor was back so soon, then he’d either find something useful on this planet, and they were safe, or he had discovered it was dangerous, and they would have soon been on their way – unless he found this last danger to be “fascinating”, in which case they would be in big trouble. However, she still trusted, given Steven’s conditions, for once the Doctor to act responsibly.

She was so eager to know what was going on, that she almost bumped into the man who stepped aboard the TARDIS, in a dark uniform and with a big gun in his hand. Luckily, he was turning his back against the door of the living quarters, and she was able to close the door just in time, just living a small piece from which to keep an eye on him. On the other side of the room, Katarina stood protectively in front of Steven, apparently unharmed. From her position, Vicki saw the man lean on the TARDIS’ console, pushing some buttons and pulling some levers, in an attempt to understand something of the controls. Where was the Doctor?

Cautiously, Vicki risked opening the door a bit more, just enough to get a look at the scanner. And there was the Doctor, shut out of the TARDIS, pacing up and down in front of the machine. It wasn’t difficult for Vicki to connect the dots: that man had forced the Doctor to hand over the key, and now was trying to steal the machine for some purpose Vicki couldn’t possibly imagine. Which meant that, with the Doctor outside and Katarina unable to move, was her turn to prevent that from happening. She had to come out with a plan.

Luckily for her, the toolbox where the Doctor kept his instruments for repairs was just outside the door. Vicki bent over and stretched a hand, trying to grab one; her hand fell on a big wrench and carefully picked it up. The man was still bent on the TARDIS console, too much taken with his attempt to understand how it worked to notice anything else. Carefully, Vicki stepped out from the door; then, with one quick movement, she went the brief distance between her and him and smacked him on the neck with all her strength.

When the man was on the ground, Vicki gestured to Katarina to take away his gun, while she opened the doors of the TARDIS. Once the Doctor was inside, they would decide what to do with him.

“Wakey, wakey, young man!” screamed the Doctor as soon as the unknown man started to regain consciousness. “Feeling a little sleepy, eh? That will teach you to go around threatening people with no reason! No, no, it was quite useless” he added, seeing him trying to rise up from the chair they put in. “This chair is magnetic, and its force field could retain a whole pack of elephants. There is nothing you can do, and nowhere you can go.”

“You fool!” the man screamed violently. “Let me out at once! The Earth is in danger, I have to warn them!”

“Oh, is that so?” asked the Doctor, chuckling. “Well, you should have thought of that before you decided to point a gun at my head!”

“Oh, Doctor, leave him alone!” Vicki interjected. She had just come back from her room after changing. She felt much better, now that she was back in her normal clothes. “After all, he has done no harm. I mean, he could kill you, instead, he just knocked you out.”

“He stole something that was of my property!” the Doctor continued. “And I don’t want even to start thinking what would have happened if he accidentally turned on the TARDIS! I could have lost you forever!”

“Look, I’m sorry,” said the man, trying to reason. “I admit it, I was rude, but it was only because I was desperate. My ship crashed, my radio is not working, and my companions are all been killed by those bestial creatures out there! I was searching for a way to contact Earth and prevent disaster.”

“Disaster? What are you talking about, man?” asked the Doctor. The man hesitated.

“You wouldn’t believe me.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” said Vicki, which, despite what happened earlier, was beginning to feel sympathy for the man. “And besides, I don’t think you have any other choice. We are not letting you out of that chair until you give us some token of good faith, and if we don’t, you are not going to save anyone. Come on, what do you have to lose?”

“Very well,” said the man, with a resigned sigh. “You want a token of good faith? I shall give it to you. Your friend, on the bench, I noticed he is very sick.”

“Well?” said the Doctor.

“I have some pills in my belt. You can take them and give them to him; they will cure him.”

“And how do we know that?”

“You don’t, but, for the same reason I have to trust you with my mission, you have to trust me with my…”

A sudden scream from Katarina interrupted the conversation. Vicki and the Doctor turned to see the young girl pointing at the scanner, a look of horror on her face. They turned around and saw them, just outside the TARDIS, pointing their eyestalks against the police box.

“Daleks!” muttered the Doctor, his blood turning cold. At his side, Vicki froze too. She remembered too well their previous encounters: the restless chase through time and space, the horror of Winter’s factory, the devastation on Shade. So much for any hope to have found someplace quiet to rest after the Trojan War!

“What is your name, sir?” the Doctor asked, now terribly serious.

“Officer Bret Vyon, of the Second Rank of Space Security Service.”

“Mister Vyon, now I am going to release you from the chair, and when I do, you will give us the pills you promised us. Then, you will tell us what you are doing here, and what the Daleks are up to. Maybe this is your lucky day after all.”

Chapter Text

As quick as he could, Bret Vyon explained the situation. He and his colleague, Kert Gantry, had been sent to Kembel to find out what happened to another Space Security agent, Marc Cory, and his crew; they shipwrecked on the planet and were never heard of. Bret and Gantry went on to explore but had been discovered by the Daleks before they could understand what they were up to.

“We ran through the jungle as soon as they spotted us, but they had found our spaceship and were expecting us. Kert… Officer Gantry was wounded in the attack and died soon after. I thought of radioing Earth for aid, but my transmitter is broken. I was going back to the city to see whether I could steal one of their ships, but then I heard your vehicle landing and…”

“And you thought you could take advantage of our coming” the Doctor concluded for him.

“Once again, I apologize for the way I approached you, but I was not sure whether you were allies or enemies.”

“Totally understandable, don't blame yourself. I probably would not have behaved differently.”

“So, what now?” asked Steven, speaking for the first time in what seemed ages. Bret's pills had done wonders, and the pilot was now in shape again, feeling only a little stiff on the right side, where the wound had been.

“Now, my boy, we have two courses of action before us,” said the Doctor. “One: we barricade inside the TARDIS, repair Officer Vyon's radio and contact Earth.”

“Why can't we just leave?” asked Bret.

“Because we don't know where we’ll land” Vicki interjected.

“What?” asked Bret amazed. “You can't control your own ship?”

“Of course, I can!” the Doctor replied. “But I cannot guarantee we land in the proper time and place. The TARDIS is totally unreliable.”

“But we can't stay here!” insisted Bret. "Especially now, that the Daleks…"

"Oh, they won't get in" the Doctor dismissed him. "The defence systems of the ship are far beyond their technological skills; it would take them centuries just to figure out how to scratch the walls. No, this why I don't like our first choice."

"Then what is it?" asked Vicki.

"Officer Vyon,” said the Doctor, turning to Bret, "let us assume I repair your radio and you communicate with Earth. What will you tell them?"

"That Marc Cory, as well as my partner, has been killed by the Daleks, which are programming some sort of war plan."

"Will they believe you?"

"Why shouldn't they? Doctor, we know about the Daleks! We have all studied the three Dalek wars…"

"Which happened two thousand years ago. Tell me, are the Daleks still thought as real in this time?"

Bret opened his mouth to speak, but then stopped, seeing what the Doctor meant. Humans had not met the Daleks since the days of the Third Dalek War, in the distant 24th century. Since then, they had been just something they all read in history books, but as for their existence, they were thought to be extinct. Chances were that, if he told Earth the Daleks were behind all this, they would dismiss it as a delusion or an absurdity. Even he would not have believed it, had not seen them with his own eyes.

"Just as I thought," the Doctor said.

"We could still just say nothing about the Daleks" suggested Vicki. "The Officer may just say there is a danger and…"

"They will ask details" Bret replied. "And even then, I am not sure whether they would understand how dangerous the situation is. My superior officers can be a real pain in the neck when they want to."

"And what about the tape you found? The one where your partner recorded what he saw?"

"Vicki is right, we could have them listen to the message," Steven said. "After all, he is the word of one of their agents, being killed. Should it not be proof enough that we are telling the truth?"

"Well, I… suppose it could work," said Bret. "Doctor, what do you think?"

"I think that we need to know more" the Doctor insisted. "You are right, the tape should be proof enough that the Daleks are real, but what good would it do? Maybe they'll just send another exploration squad, which may not be enough for dealing with them. And let us not forget they found us: they can't enter here, but they can prevent us from going out, and may well set thicker defences around the planet. Then what, eh? What?"

"Alright, Doctor, what do you suggest?" asked Steven.

"We go down to the Dalek city and try to gather evidence, anything that could be useful. Then, we either go back to the TARDIS or, if we can't do that, we stick to Officer Vyon's original plan and steal one of their ships. With my knowledge of Dalek technology and Steven's piloting skills, we should be able to get it to Earth; in the meantime, we repair Officer Vyon's transmitter and warn them of the danger."

"It sounds very risky" Steven objected.

"Risky? It's madness!" Bret snapped. "Going down there, amongst the Daleks? We would enter into the lion's den!"

"And they don't expect us to do it" the Doctor insisted. "Therefore, it would be easier to go around."

"Still, it would be dangerous, and you are not properly equipped. I mean, Doctor, I respect your knowledge of the Daleks, but from what I can see from here, you don't have any weapons. What are we going to do if we are captured?"

"Oh, my dear Officer, I can assure you we are not in our first round with this sort of things. We’ll just have to use some precaution, and we’ll be just fine.”

"At least let the girls stay here!" Bret insisted. "We three are more than enough for this sort of thing."

"I actually agree with him on this one, Doctor," said Steven. "Especially for Kat…"

"NO!" screamed Katarina, lurching forward to grab the Doctor's wrist. "Please, mighty Zeus, don't leave me here! Don't leave me alone with those… those… demons!"

"I am not going to, my child" the Doctor smiled reassuringly. "I am not leaving you alone. Vicki," the Doctor then said, turning to the other girl, "you heard Steven and Officer Vyon. Personally, I would agree with them, but I know you well enough, and in normal circumstances, I have no doubt you'd choose to come no matter what. However, given our current situation…"

"Stop right there, Doctor" Vicki interrupted him. "I know what you're going to say, and I don't care. If you go to the city, there's no guarantee you will be able to come back to the TARDIS, whether they find you or not. In that case…" here Vicki stopped, trying to keep her voice firm and stop the tears welling in her eyes, "…in that case I and Katarina would remain here, stranded on this planet, surrounded by the Daleks, with no chance to get out and with a strong possibility not to see you or Steven again. And if you know me well enough as you said, Doctor, then you should know how this would be a much worse fate for me."

The Doctor didn't reply. It was useless. The look on her face was the same one she had when he, Ian and Barbara had found her on Dido: a lost child far away from home, deprived of everything she loved, and desperate for a chance to belong again somewhere. Nothing of what he could say would change her mind. With a sigh, the Doctor nodded.

"I have a very bad feeling about this" Bret muttered behind him.

***

The five of them crept carefully outside of the TARDIS and, after the Doctor had locked the door, made their way across the jungle. Bret went forward, his gun pointed, ready to fire at the first sign of danger, Vicki at his heels; the Doctor followed, an arm across Katarina's shoulder; Steven closed the line. Luckily for them, the Daleks were nowhere to be found, and they soon arrived at the edge of the jungle. From their position, they could see a large square in the centre of the city, shining in the darkness of the planet.

"There don't seem to be any guards," Vicki whispered. "The Daleks must feel pretty sure of themselves.”

"Or maybe they are too busy looking for us in the jungle," the Doctor said.

"Look at the ships" Steven exhaled, pointing at the great shapes of the space vehicles, they could see in the distance. "Those are not Daleks vessels, at least not all of them."

"You're right, my boy," the Doctor said. "The Daleks must not be alone on this…"

"The one in the middle!" Bret suddenly gasped, incredulous. "It is… but no, that's not possible!"

"What? What is it?"

"It's from Earth… it's Mavic Chen's ship!"

"Who?"

"The Guardian of the Solar System! He is the greatest authority of our Confederacy! What is he doing here?"

"Never mind that," said the Doctor, dismissively. "Do you know that ship? Could you pilot it?"

"I guess so," said Bret, after a moment of reflection. "Yeah, I think I could."

"Then, we have found our way out of this place. Now all we have to do…"

"Someone's coming!" said Katarina, attracting their attention. They watched intently and saw a hooded figure, of the same size as the Doctor, a few feet away from them. No face could be seen under the hood, but from the sleeves of his robe two greenish, vegetable-like extremities hung out, as a sort of hands.

"It's Representative Zephon of the Fifth Galaxy," Bret recognized him. "Mavic Chen was supposed to meet him on a diplomatic mission."

"Oh, was he?" asked the Doctor, with a wicked grin, before turning to face Steven. The Time Lord and the pilot understood each another with a glance, and Steven went on, gesturing to the girls to stand back. Bret seemed to understand too since he disposed at the left side of the Doctor. The three waited for Zephon to surpass them, then jumped him and quickly knocked him unconscious.

"Take him out of the way, quick!" the Doctor said, while he, Bret and Steven dragged Zephon into a corner. "Good, now listen. You get on Chen's ship and prepare it for departure. I will pose as Zephon and go and try to find out what the Daleks are up to. If I am not back for the time you are ready, you leave. Do not wait for me, is that clear?"

***

"He told us to leave!" Bret screamed, trying to overcome the increasing noise of the ship's engine turning on and the alarm signal ringing outside. Steven had his hand on the control panel and was desperately trying to stop him from getting the ship going.

"Give him some more time!" he shouted. "We can't go without him!"

"Come on, Doctor, come on!" muttered Vicki under his breath, trying and failing to remain calm.

"There he is!" Katarina shouted, pointing out of one of the windows. Vicki looked in that direction, and with relief saw the old familiar figure, still dressed in Zephon's robe, running out of the great building across the square towards them. Some Daleks were in pursuit, but they were still too distant to reach him in time.

"Leave now!" said Vicki, after the Doctor managed to get on board. Bret heard her, and with a thrust, he had the ship sailing towards the sky. In a few moments, they were in space, on a course for Earth. By that time, the Doctor had reached them in the control room and sat on a chair, breathing heavily. He had a small cylinder in his hand, of a greyish colour.

"What is it?" asked Vicki.

"The secret of the Daleks" explained the Doctor, still catching his break, "and the reason for Mavic Chen's presence on Kembel. I am sorry, Officer Vyon, but it appears that your Guardian has betrayed you. He is an ally of the Daleks."

The Doctor told them of the meeting he assisted to, where various representatives of different galaxies had come together to help the Daleks conquering the universe and being nominated, in return, absolute lords of their respective areas. The Daleks had created a Time Destructor, a weapon capable to accelerate the course of time on every living being to the point of making them age and decay really quickly, and Mavic Chen provided them the core of Taranium (an extremely rare mineral) which would allow it to work. That was the cylinder he had with him: he managed to steal it when the alarm rang off, before fleeing to meet them.

"We did well not to contact Earth!" Bret exclaimed. "Chen could have stopped the message or distorted his meaning, so it had no effect. He is very popular these days, and many of my colleagues just worship every word coming out of his mouth."

"Yes, that was fortunate" the Doctor admitted. "But this also means that, when we arrive on Earth, it would not be easy to convince your superiors and colleagues. You better start thinking of some people you absolutely trust, Officer."

"And what if we don't arrive on Earth?" Vicki asked, gloomily. "What if the Daleks find a way to stop us before we do?"

"Oh, let us not wrap our head before breaking it. For the moment, we keep our course on Earth and prepare to find a way to warn them. Then, we'll see."

Chapter Text

A moment, that was what all it took. A blink of an eye, a turning of the head. A period of time so small that it would seem impossible for anything to happen, and instead it made all the difference. One moment, Vicki was trying to comfort a screaming Katarina, struggling to free from the prisoner’s hold; the next one, she was looking in horror at her body floating in the darkness of space, arms and legs stretched as a broken doll.

Behind her, the others were silent, struck by stupor and pain. Steven, like her, was watching speechless at Katarina’s body, his usual expression of confidence gone. Bret, still the efficient military man, leaned against the ship’s controls, in an attempt to hide the shock behind work. It was not the first time he suffered losses, and he was going to behave as he always did in such cases: going on with the mission and only at the end, if he was still alive, finding time to mourn. And then there was the Doctor, whose face was contorted in a somewhat incredulous look, almost as if he couldn’t believe what just happened.

Vicki, however, did not see them. His eyes still gazed upon the little figure hovering more and farther away into the depths of space, the shell of what once was a person with feelings, thoughts, emotions, now all gone, all disappeared into the vastity of eternity.

Like Troilus on the sand of Troy.

Like her father and the crew of the UK-201 on Dido.

Something inside Vicki broke and she fell on the ground, sobbing miserably. Someone moved towards her and tried to put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her, but she pushed him away. She didn’t want any comfort, she only needed to cry alone, in peace, for this little girl who had foolishly walked into someone she was not prepared for.

A few minutes ago

As she had foreseen, the Daleks had found a way to stop them. They used a randomiser to hijack the ship’s controls, causing them to crash on Desperus, a prison planet near Kembel. The crash should have killed them, but instead, it caused only minor damage, which Bret and Steven immediately went to fix. The Doctor, Katarina, and Vicki stayed in the control room, from which they saw three prisoners approaching the ship, with all the intentions of boarding it.
The Doctor came up with a plan. To reach the ship, the three inmates were bound to come across a swamp. If they managed to detach one of the electric wires connected to the ship, but not important for his maintenance, and have it fall in the water of the swamp, they could repel the attack of the three inmates without resorting to any violence. Vicki agreed to the plan and volunteered to come out and detach the cable, but the Doctor insisted on doing it himself. Vicki had to resign to say on the ship and wait with Katarina for the return of the men.

For the first time since they escaped from Troy, the two girls were alone. They sat on the floor, their backs against the cold metallic walls of the room, in silence, for some time. And then, in the quiet of the room, Vicki heard Katarina sniffing. She turned towards her. The Trojan girl was bent in front of her and buried her face behind her legs, which she kept close to her body.

“Are you okay?” Vicki asked, a bit rhetorically. Katarina did not answer. Vicki tentatively put a hand on her shoulder, unsure of what to do. How do you talk to a girl swept away from her own time, in a future age so different from her environment it was impossible for her to understand? What do you say to her?

“Look… it’s going to be all right. The Doctor has already solved situations like this before, we’ll be out of danger in no time at all.”

“And then we’ll go the place of perfection?” she asked from behind her knees. Vicki didn’t quite know how to reply to that, so she limited to a generic expression of assurance. “Yes, we will, and sooner than you think. Now, will you come out and let me see you?”

Slowly, Katarina relaxed her legs and raised his face, to look her in the eyes. They were a little moisty with tears, but otherwise, they were calm and peaceful. She even tried to smile.

“There you go” Vicki encouraged her, wiping away her tears. “You know, you have a very beautiful smile.”

“My father always said that. He said that whenever he was tired, or angry, he would think of me smiling and instantly he felt better.”

“He was right. You have a beautiful smile. You should never allow anyone, or anything, to take it away. I… do it myself when things get too serious, or sad” Vicki admitted, refraining herself to add that she needed to do it a lot more in these last few days.

“I know, but… I can’t help it, I don’t understand any of this” said Katarina, looking around the desert room. Vicki sighed. That was precisely what she said to the Doctor: Katarina was unqualified for this. How could he expect her to understand, comprehend, something so alien to her as technology? What was the Doctor thinking in dragging a young, innocent girl from another time into what they were doing? And how could she help her?

“I have been there too. It is not easy to get used to it. One minute you are in your time, and the next one… the next one you are among strangers, in a place you don’t know, and… it is quite confusing. But I assure you when you get used to it… it is amazing. And the Doctor… he can be rude sometimes, but he is so generous, and… Sorry, I know maybe you don’t follow this…”

“Oh no, I follow. You are devout to him, to Zeus, the one you call the Doctor. You have faith for him to do the right thing. I admire you for that, for your faith. I just wish I had it too.”

“Katarina, I am not here because I have faith in the Doctor. Sure, I do trust him, and I know he is smart and will do everything he can to get us out of here. But I am not here for him, I am here because it is right for me to be here. The Doctor can do many things, more than me, but I am required, we are all required, to do what we can. Right now, you may feel unnecessary, or unimportant, or lost, but believe me: there is always a reason for us to be in a certain place. You may not know it, you may not feel it, but there is. In this, I have faith.”

Vicki was never going to forget how Katarina looked at her at that moment, the pride and the commotion she saw in the other’s gaze. She admired her, she adored her, and for the first time since Troy, Vicki was no longer sad over losing Troilus. There was still something she could do, in the TARDIS, right now.

At that moment, the Doctor returned. The cable had been switched, the trap set. Now they could just wait for the convicts to arrive.

Present time

And they arrived, all right, three of them, coming out from the midst of the swap. They approached the ship and tried to board it, but two of them were electrocuted. The third one, though, managed to get on board just as they were leaving, and took Katarina hostage, threatening to kill her if they did not bring him to Kembel. They tried to play for time, and, in the end, Bret decided for a strong intervention: he rotated the ship, sending both Katarina and her captor into the airlock, locking them here. The Doctor and Steven then tried to negotiate with the man, but Vicki quickly realized fear was taking control of Katarina. She tried to comfort her, but the other had already found the button who opened the airlock and pressed it.

They were ejected by the spaceship and were lost, forever.

Lost to them.

Lost to time.

Lost to anyone.

Vicki cried at that thought, cried all her tears, the ones she didn’t shed for Troilus, the ones she still had for her dad, the ones for that foolish speech she gave to Katarina just a few moments earlier. She cried and cried for what seemed like hours, leaned against the wall, until tiredness and pain had the best on her, and she passed out against the wall.

***

The first thing Vicki felt when she woke up was that she was not on the ground anymore. A soft pillow laid underneath her head, blankets made of some unknown texture were wrapped around her, and she had been deposited over a large, luxurious mattress, which gave her a rather nice sense of relaxing. She wasn’t even in the cockpit anymore: she was in what looked like a majestic bedroom, filled with every comfort. No doubt that that was when the original owner of the ship usually slept.
The door opened, and Steven entered, carrying a plate of food and drink. Seeing that she woke up, he posed it on a table next to the wall and, smiling, went to sit on her side.

“Feeling better?” he asked.

“I think so” Vicki cautiously answered. “Where are the others?”

“Bret is checking the instruments for the last time. He says it won’t be long before we reach Earth. Two days, maybe three. And we are out of the range of the randomiser, so the Daleks could not hijack us further.”

“And the Doctor?”

“He has just gone to lay off for a while. After you passed out, he carried you personally in here and stayed to watch you. I wanted to be with you, but he insisted that I and Bret should check the ship. We made turns. In a while, I will go to relieve Bret.”

“How long was I…?”

“Nine hours, the time of a night’s sleep. You must have been tired” Steven tried to joke, with little success. Both sat silent for some minute, not sure of what to say to each other. Then, Steven decided that talking was useless, and instead, he bent over and threw his arms around Vicki’s shoulders. This time, she did not push him away, but returned the hug and held him close, so very close.

“I had just given her hope” Vicki whispered in Steven’s ear. “I said to her that there was a reason for her to be here, that she should not have been afraid but have faith...”

“Sssh,” Steven hissed. “It is all right, you did well. You could not imagine…”

“I’m not feeling guilty, not for her, at least,” Vicki said, detaching herself. “I know that I have done all I could, but… it is…”

“Yes, it is. It is painful and shocking, and you feel empty. You think of all the things that person was, and how it could have been the starting of something, a friendship or even more, and you feel sorry because she is dead, and you aren’t. Believe me, I know the feeling all too well: it’s what happens to soldiers all the time.”

“But we are not soldiers.”

“We are now,” Steven said bitterly. “The Daleks on Kembel was plotting a war against Earth, and we intervened to stop them. That makes us soldiers, volunteers even since we could have just left. It is not fair, but what can we do?”

“You said it yourself, we could have left. Only the Doctor didn’t want to.”

“To be honest, I agree with him. I know it is foolish thinking, but I can’t help it. If I see a situation going south, I can’t ignore it, it’s… not in my nature.”

“I know, but I’m not even sure we are doing the right thing anymore. I mean, where did our intervention make things better, Steven? We destroyed Winter’s factory, but we also destroyed the life of a colony, and we don’t know if they managed to be free of the Daleks. In London, when we stopped the Phoenix, we ruined the life of a man and his wife. In France, we…”

“We prevented history from being changed in 1066, we saved a Cambridge college from being a place of experiments for aliens, and what about London, in 1912? If we did not intervene, the Suffering would have caused the suffragettes to start a riot and kill men. I don’t want to debunk you, Vicki, but do you think all we did was useless or wrong?”

Vicki didn’t answer straight away: Steven had a pretty solid point, and to be honest, Vicki herself didn’t think it very different from him. No, after all, it was only one memory, one fact, that bothered her, that made her feel small and miserable. One fact. One man. One name.

“Troilus” she whispered, finally letting it out of her chest. “I… I killed Troilus. I sent her out to look for you, and he… he… and I thought that helping Katarina, make her live… I don’t know, it was… fair, equal, a life for a life, or…” she went on, starting once again to sob uncontrollably.

Steven didn’t stop her, he just held her close and let her cry. He knew too well that Vicki, at that moment, didn’t need words, she only needed to cry her heart out and feel she was not alone. She had been bottling her tears from Troilus since they escaped, it would be only good for her to throw them out once and all.

He lifted his eyes, only to see the Doctor watching them from the door. He didn’t know how long he had been standing here, listening, but from the look in his eyes, it probably was a while. The two men looked at each other and spoke without words, then, slowly, the Doctor walked away towards the cockpit. He would relieve Bret and stay on guard; Steven was needed elsewhere.

And perhaps, it was the best solution for him too, to work and concentrate on something. Vicki was not the only member aboard the ship to feel guilty.

Chapter Text

The two days following Katarina's death were busy days for everyone. Chen's spar was a big ship, and even with the high piloting skills of both Steven and Bret, more often than not it became evident that it was not a ship designed for just two people. To Vicki, this was just fine: she needed the work, at least as a way of recovering from mourning. The Doctor, after an initial protest, seemed to understand that, and provided Vicki with numerous tasks; sometimes he even accompanied her, when he thought she would need his help. After all, this for Vicki was future technology, and not always she understood how it worked.

Vicki didn't complain, she enjoyed the company; in fact, she wished she had more. The Doctor in these days was staying pretty much alone; when he was not in the cockpit giving orders and checking the ship, he locked himself in his room. When he went out, he kept focused only on their route and their destination, or on the works they needed to do to keep the ship working. He seldom joked, or talked about anything else, or even smiled. Vicki missed that, even though she thought she understood the reason for such a behaviour: just like her, the Doctor was feeling guilty for what happened. And yet, this same reason made her think that he was getting it all wrong: instead of keeping his grief to himself, he should stay with them more, enjoy their company, share his pain, as he did with her when Ian and Barbara left. Staying alone was not a solution, it would only make things worse. She even tried to tell him that, but the Doctor kept dismissing her as soon as she opened her mouth, and in the end, she gave up.

On the other hand, this situation had the effect of pushing her and Steven even closer than before. Vicki took the habit of staying in the cockpit when it was Steven's turn to pilot the ship, and he started explaining to her what he was doing and for what reason, enjoying the interest and the attention he saw in her eyes. Soon, they started talking about their lives at home, and as time went by, conversations became more and more personal. Vicki knew only then that Steven's birthday was on 10th February, that he was a Protestant, that when he was at school, he and his classmates built a 5D representation of East Berlin. Steven, on the other hand, knew that Vicki lived nearby a castle when she was little, that her mother wanted to name her Tanni, that she had certificates in disciplines such as medicine, computers, chemistry, but was not very into this. At the end of the two days, when finally Earth started to appear on the scanners of the ship, Vicki and Steven's bond was deeper than ever, and the two of them were ready to face whatever waited for them.

***

"We are going to land here," said Bret, his finger pointing at a small location on the map, just outside the Central City. "It is an experimental laboratory. I have a friend working there, a scientist. His name is Daxtar. He will help us."

"And how do you know that?" asked the Doctor, suspiciously.

"I and Daxtar joined the military together, and I know him from before that. I think he will know me well enough to trust me if I tell him what's going on."

"Let us hope so" the Doctor muttered, still not convinced. Vicki and Steven glanced at each other: they were not so sure either. But, then again, that was Bret's era, they had to trust his judgment.

"And what then?" asked Steven. "Even if he trusts us, what do we do?"

"First of all, we hide the taranium," said the Doctor. "We'll let Chen think we still have it, and we'll lead him on a hunt for a time, while we try to find a way to uncover his betrayal. Then, we'll let him capture one of us, me presumably, and find out we don't have it. If I know the Daleks, they will deal with him then; then, they will be forced to attack Earth, but by that time, if we managed to prove Chen's treason…"

"…Earth will be ready for defence" Bret concluded for him. "Yes, I see what you mean. But it won't be easy."

"Indeed, it won't be" the Doctor sighed. "But we'll try to do our best, and if an opportunity will present to solve this situation without causing a war, we'll take it."

"Agreed," Vicki said, strengthening the grip on the gun she found in the weapon depository of the ship. Steven nodded, with his hands on the trigger of another one. The Doctor looked at them for a moment, as if he wanted to say something, but then just nodded. He normally would not approve them carrying weapons, but even he this time understood there might be need of them.

"Come on then, Officer Vyon, take us down. Let us hope luck is on our side."

***

And of course, luck wasn't on their side. It didn't take long for the Doctor to figure out that Daxtar had been sent by Mavic Chen to trick them into giving him the taranium core. Furious, Bret was quick to take out his gun and shoot him, much to the Doctor and the others displease: they could interrogate him and acquire from him valuable information. They were still bickering, trying to decide what they should do next when someone entered the room, they were in. It was a woman in her thirties, with long brown hair combed in a casket alongside her cheeks, and she was dressed in the same uniform as Bret. It had a stern look on her face.

"Sara…" Bret sighed in recognising her, his face lighting up with relief and hope. "Just the person we needed."

"I doubt that" replied the woman, in a cold voice, before taking out her own gun and pointing it at the four travellers. "Give up your weapons and give me the taranium."

"Sara, no, listen…" Bret said, moving towards her. She just kept pointing her gun at him, insisting they surrender. "We have the building completely surrounded. There is no chance of escape for any of you. Give me the taranium, or we shall take it by force!"

"Over our dead bodies" hissed Vicki, starting to lift her gun, only for the Doctor to stop her.

"Young woman, listen to me," said the Doctor, moving a step forward. "You are in terrible danger, all of you. Mavic Chen is in league with the Dal…"

"Silence! You can spare your breath, old man, I am not here to talk. Just give me what I want."

"Sara, please, listen!" Bret pleaded. "I know it's difficult to believe it, but I swear to you, it is true. We are not your enemies, Mavic Chen is."

"The lies of a traitor."

"Am I now?" Bret asked. "Am I a traitor? Sara, how long have you known me? Have I ever disobeyed an order? Have I ever let down you or anybody else? And tell me, please, why should I betray the Earth? What would I gain?"

"I don't know, and I don't care" the woman replied, but her voice trembled. The Doctor silently encouraged Bret to press on.

"Sara, I know you have your orders, and I know you will obey them, like the good soldier you are. Therefore, I am not going to ask you to let us go, I know you won't. What I ask you is just that you hear me first. Don't you think I deserve that? Don't you want to know my side of the story? Or obedience is so important to you that you would let your own brother die, without even knowing why?"

"Brother?" exclaimed Vicki, only for the Doctor to shush her. The woman was now visibly hesitating, her gun now was beginning to lower. It was just a question of minutes…

"Doctor, look out!" Steven cried, before raising her gun and shooting at the man who had appeared behind Sara. The man was hit at the shoulder and retreated while whimpering in pain. As if awakened by the gunshot, Sara turned to shoot Vicki, but Bret jumped on her and pushed her aside, screaming for the others to run. Steven immediately grabbed the Doctor and Vicki, and the three of them ran out for the room. Bret moved to follow them, but he was too slow.

The shot hit him in the leg and made him fall on his face. Whimpering from the pain, he turned. Sara was rising up, the gun in her hand, and a look of utter desperation and horror on her face. Bret raised his hands, in one last desperate plea, but he didn't even get a chance to speak. He had just moved his lips, that Sara had begun shooting again, and again, and again.

***

The Doctor, Vicki, and Steven ran for what seemed like hours, along corridors who looked all the same, mercifully without meeting anyone. In the end, they took refuge into a room at the end of another corridor. It was a bare room, with nothing in it but a cage fixed on the top of some strange machinery, containing a few mice. The Doctor speculated the room had been prepared for some kind of experiment, but he didn't have any idea what it could be, and anyway they had no time to think about it. They decided to wait here, watching the door closely, either for Bret to reach them or for the situation to calm down enough for them to come out safely.

"Someone's coming," said Steven, hearing footsteps and retreating from the door, his gun raised. Vicki imitated him, while the Doctor stood between them, his fingers in the folds of his jacket. Some minutes later, Sara walked into the room, gun in her hand.

"Surrender and give me the taranium."

"Now, you listen to me, young lady…" the Doctor started.

"Your friend is dead, and my colleagues will reach us soon. Give me the taranium, now!" insisted Sara, almost crying.

"You killed him" whispered sternly Vicki, rage mounting inside of her. On the other side of the Doctor, Steven had already his hand on the trigger and was aiming to Sara's head. And then, something happened. The room started whirling around them, while their bodies shook and trembled. A terrible headache struck them, accompanied by a painful sensation of being torn to pieces, limb by limb. In the end, everything became black.

***

Sara Kingdom woke up later, feeling terribly sore, and with a strong headache. Someone was gently tapping her on the shoulder, speaking to her with an imperious voice, in a hurried tone.

"Come on, madam, wake up. I have some question to ask you."

Slowly, Sara regained her senses. She was laying on her back, in the middle of a swamp; around her stood the two men and the young woman who reached Earth together with her brother… the brother she killed, as she suddenly remembered.

"You! You are…"

But words died in her mouth, while the fatigue took hold of her. Gently but firmly, the old man, the Doctor, pulled her up on her feet and dragged her away, followed by his two younger companions. A hand of her reached for her gun, but her holster was empty. Likely, they took it away while she was unconscious. The four of them walked for a while, while Sara regained her strength. As soon as she felt able to stand without help, she broke free from the Doctor's clutch.

"Feeling better?" asked Vicki, with a bit of bitterness.

"I'll feel a lot better when we get out of this place" she answered rudely, putting on a façade of a strong woman in control of the situation.

"Getting away from this place sets quite a problem" was the Doctor's reply.

"Where are we?" asked Steven.

"At the moment, I haven't the faintest idea," said the Doctor, before explaining to them how they got there. The mice they found were the subject-tests for an experiment of cellular dissemination: they had all been disassembled on a molecular level and then sent off on this planet, where their bodies reassembled.
Unfortunately, the Doctor also pointed out that the cage containing the mice had a transmitting device, which meant that Mavic Chen, and his allies, would soon be able to find them.

"Good," said Sara, hearing the news. "Then give me the taranium and put an end to this story."

"Not so fast, lady!" Steven exclaimed, grabbing her by the arm. "You are not on Earth, now, with your colleagues to watch your back. You are with us, and as sure as Hell you are going to do as we say."

"We could just leave her here" Vicki suggested, her voice full of rage. "She killed Bret. She deserves nothing less."

"Now, now, now, my child, don't be hasty" the Doctor reprimanded her. "Remember, Bret almost managed to convince her to listen to us before Steven saw one of their colleagues. And she is his sister if I heard correctly, so maybe she will be interested now to hear why her brother died."

"He died because he was a traitor!" Sara spat, enraged. "Between the four of you, you had stolen the taranium, the most valuable mineral in the universe. It was needed desperately to spread the peace that was forged in the Solar System to reach all galaxies."

"Oh, yeah? And who told you that, Mavic Chen?" Vicki mocked her. "The man who has allied himself with the Daleks to conquer all the universe?"

"Lies! Fantasies!" Sara forcefully replied, but without being so sure anymore.

"Then answer this" Steven interjected. "How was the taranium going to do that?"

"How should I know?" Sara screamed in response. "I had my orders!"

And that was when it finally hit her. As long as he knew him, Bret had always been the good soldier, the man of order, the one who taught her the value of discipline and obedience for the service of humanity. And yet, that wasn't the reason why she admired him; what she really loved about him, was that he understood which orders should be followed and which ones shouldn't. He was always sure to do the right thing because he saw when his superiors were wrong – something almost every other of her colleagues never did. And a man like that, a man which understood the value of the good over the lawful, had become a traitor? A force against peace? How could she ever believe that?

"Your orders! And even though it meant killing one of your people, you obeyed them lightly, without question?" Now it was Steven's turn to get angry. He had been a soldier too, in what seemed a long time ago, and remembered how it was to obey orders, but never in his all life would have even dreamed to obey without question. How could this woman be so blind?

"One does not question the orders of the Guardian" Sara replied, her voice now completely void of emotion, while her eyes watered.

"And you didn't even stop to think how it happened that a Space Security agent, one of your own people, was a traitor?" Steven pressed on.

"NO!" Sara cried, on the verge of tears, while sadness and guilt mounted inside her.

"I bet you haven't even given him a chance to explain" Vicki interjected. "You couldn't question Chen and you wouldn't question Bret! As a good, obedient soldier, nothing but a pawn, a murdering pawn!"

"Stop it now, all of you!" the Doctor shouted, with a voice so imperious that even Sara unconsciously took some step back. Vicki and Steven looked at the old man, now moving past them. All his apparent weakness and frailty were gone, and the Doctor stood amongst them as a figure older than time itself and wise as much, so irradiated with power and majesty that his two companions felt almost intimidated by him. "Enough with this nonsense! War, guns, blood, revenge, that's all you can think of? Too many lives have been wasted already, only because we were not able to talk to each other."

"But Doctor, she…"

"She made a mistake, a terrible mistake, for sure, but a mistake, nonetheless. And what would you expect from her? Only people with great character and personality can fight successfully against their own environment, and the price to pay in these cases is always a hard one to pay; and in military environments, where obedience is required more than anything else, how was she to understand which orders should not be obeyed?"

"I would…"

"But she's not you, Steven! And anyway, it doesn't matter. Now that she's here with us, she is a liability to Chen. Sure, he could hope she won't talk, but what if she does? And if the Daleks reach us, what then? You said we should abandon her here: would you do it? Leave her for the Daleks to find her? And in what way should we then be different from Chen, eh? Eh?"

Both Vicki and Steven didn't know what to answer to that and silently lowered their heads. The Doctor then turned to Sara, who now looked at him with eyes full of surprise and thankfulness, and held out a hand for her to take it.

"Now, my dear, I understand you have a hard time believing us, and I am not going to ask you to just do that, just as Bret did not ask you to let us go, but only to listen. But you are with us, whether you or we want it or not, and we all need each other if we want to get off this planet and save Earth. So, for now, I'm just going to ask for your help. Will you give it to us?"

Sara looked at him, looked deeply in those black, calm eyes staring at her. These were not the eyes of a traitor. There was kindness in them, and understanding, such
as she had never found before in her life. She silently nodded.

"Good," said the Doctor, smiling. "Then, we shall find a place to take cover, and soon. I recognised this planet: it's Mira, home of the Visians. We cannot see them, but they can see us, and they are very vicious. We should move now, while we can."

Chapter Text

"Good work, my boy! Keep going!" the Doctor shouted at Steven dodging a Dalek shot. The Dalek tried to shoot again, but at that precise moment, a Visian came out of the bushes and attacked him, allowing Steven to run away. As soon as he reached them, the Doctor pushed Vicki forward and ran after her through the jungle, trying to find the trail the Daleks left on the moist ground. Luckily for them, the fight between the Daleks and the Visians was so heated, that not only they managed to flee almost undisturbed, but the light coming from the Dalek blasters shooting at their opponents illuminated the jungle just enough time for them to find the trail and start following it, deep into the jungle, away from their pursuers and from the mysterious inhabitants of that world.

"Finally, some luck" Vicki said when, some minutes later, they stopped for a moment to catch their breaths.

"Yes, it was rather fortunate" admitted the Doctor. "If the Visians had not attacked, we would have probably been forced either to give up the Taranium or to fight."

"Well," Steven intervened "I'm glad we didn't have to make that choice. I am not sure we could have resisted long against them."

"Yes, but what do we do now?" asked Sara, worriedly. "I don't think the Visians will be able to keep them occupied for much longer. Listen," she added. "The noises of the gunshots are already fading."

"Maybe the Visians managed to beat the Daleks" Steven suggested, but the tone of his voice made it clear that even he did not believe it.

"There is only one thing we can do," the Doctor said. "Get out of here."

"How?"

"The only way we can, Miss Kingdom: with the Dalek ship. Why do you think did I have you running this way, along the path left by the Daleks?"

"You mean… you want to board them? Are you out of your mind?"

"Now, now, young lady, there is no need to be ungracious" the Doctor snapped. "I admit it is a bit of a desperate plan, but I think we would all agree that it is the quickest way to leave this planet. We have neither a ship of our own or the time to go around looking for civilized people, even admitting there are some on this planet."

"Yes, but how do we…?"

"This is something we'll discuss when we find the ship. I have a plan, but I need to know how many Daleks have been left on guard to make a proper strategy. So, since the fight is apparently over, judging by the silence," (and indeed, the three companions noticed, all had gone quiet in the jungle), "I suggest we stop talking and go on before the Daleks catch up to us."

Vicki and Steven nodded, and, with the Doctor ahead, the four travellers moved again, following the traces of the Daleks' passage until they reached their destination. The ship loomed in front of them, cold and threatening in the dark, scarcely lighted by a few lampposts, which made her look even more grey and colourless. There was only one Dalek insight, but still, the travellers waited for some time, to see whether others would appear, but nothing happened.

"Good, there's only one guard," the Doctor finally concluded. "Now, listen to me. Vicki and I will walk over to that Dalek, pretending we have come to surrender and give over the Taranium. While we talk with him, you two," and the Doctor pointed at Steven and Sara, "will creep behind him, pick up some mud and, where you are ready, spread it over his eyepiece. He will be unable to see anything, which will give us the right chance to climb on board and start the ship."

"And what if there are Daleks inside?" Steven asked.

"I don't think we'll have that problem," the Doctor said. "The ship is big, yes, but not so big to contain more than three or four Daleks, and we already saw two of them in the jungle. If my calculations are correct, nobody should be inside, or it is just a matter of one Dalek, and in that case, use your guns and point to the eyestalk. This will do the trick."

"It will never work" Sara protested, shaking her head. "The other Daleks will be back here before you can get started."

"Oh, shut up, you!" Vicki replied, annoyed. "We had dealings with the Daleks before."

"So have I" hissed Sara in return, now angry. She was not going to have a child treat her like that.

"And have you defeated them too?" asked Vicki. "Because we have, at least twice."

"Stop it, both of you!" Steven intervened, putting an arm on each one's shoulder, before turning to Sara. "Sara, listen to me. Why should the Daleks come back? They are looking for us, they won't expect us to come back here."

"That's why," the Doctor intervened "I brought us back there. True, the Daleks are bound to come back at some point, but not before they search all the area, and since they are very scrupulous at what they do, this means it will take them a few hours: more than enough time for us to get on board and depart."

"Look, Sara," Steven said again, seeing she was yet not convinced, "Like most of the Doctor's plans, this one's simple, it won't take long, and anyway, you must learn to trust us. The Doctor was right before, we are all in this together, and the only way we're going to do things is that we cooperate. Don't you agree?"

Sara looked at them before answering, passing from the calm, placid eyes of Steven to the firm, energic posture of the Doctor, to finish with the passion she could almost see go into Vicki's body. Did she trust them? Honestly, she didn't know. Her world had been just shattered in one day, she was still in need of a moment to collect her thoughts and decide things. Then again, she saw the old man standing in front of the Daleks, as a figure of an heroic tale from the past, unafraid and undeterred, and she couldn't deny the strange feeling of exaltation this sight gave her, the almost scary surety that he was more than a match to them, that he could beat them if only he waved his finger. She also saw the loyalty and the strength of the other two, the camaraderie which reminded her of the Academy, of the days where she and her friends were just kids playing with soldiers, dreaming of glorious days. Did she trust them? Maybe not, but surely, she wanted to.

"I have no choice" she finally admitted, the sentence a compromise between her feelings. "I will follow your plan, Doctor. Let's hope you are right."

 

In the end, they were right. The Dalek guard was caught by surprise, both from the Doctor and Vicki's distraction and from Steven and Sara's quick intervention, so the travellers managed to come on board without any troubles. As the Doctor had anticipated, the ship was almost empty, so they had ample time to come to the control deck and start the ship. By the time the other Daleks arrived, the engines were ready for take-off, and the Doctor, with Steven's help, gave them the final push bringing them into the atmosphere. We did it, Sara smiled, still incredulous but now with a bit of satisfaction, while they rose above the dark skies of Mira, away from the jungle and from their pursuers.

"We did it!" Steven echoed her, screaming of joy and exchanging an embrace with Vicki. "We did it!"

"Let us not be carried away, my boy" the Doctor intervened, still deadly serious. "We have escaped from Mira, but now we have to decide where to go next, and more importantly, how to arrive without the Daleks stopping us."

"Earth," Sara immediately said. "Set the coordinates for Earth. We are coming back to warn them of Chen's treason."

"And why should we do that?" Steven asked, "We already tried to do it and failed. Why should this time go any differently?"

"For two reasons" Sara explained. "First: it will be the last place both the Daleks and Chen expect us to go. Why should we try to come back to Earth now, that we have no one to trust us there? It would make no sense."

"You can say that again."

"And second," Sara continued, ignoring Vicki's remark, "I have two colleagues which I absolutely trust, Jason Corey and Mark Seven. The three of us fought against the Daleks on a meteorite some time ago and reported back their presence and activity. They know what the Daleks are capable of and…"

"But will they believe in Chen's treason?" asked Steven.

"I think they will, once I have brought certain facts up to their attention. I remember that Mark's report was brought to Chen by direct route, without passing through official channels, and yet, no measure has been taken since then to act against the Daleks. Mark, which is an android, noticed that more than once, and it seemed weird to him: then, he shouldn't be difficult to convince. As for Jason, he may be a bit more difficult, but he trusts both Mark and me, and… well… when the order came, he was not convinced Bret was a traitor," (here Sara had to stop for a moment, to hold her voice firm), "so…"

"Splendid, splendid, miss Kingdom, you have made your point quite clear" the Doctor interrupted her. "We'll follow your advice and try again to warn Earth, but first, we have to reach it, and I fear the Daleks won't let us. This is a ship of their own, and, as we know, they can control it by afar, so it is very probable they will do such a thing. Therefore, we have to think of a diversion, something to keep them busy while we try to reach Earth."

"And what is your plan?" Vicki asked, with an amused grin. She had recognized the mischievous light in the black eyes of the old man, the one he had when he had thought an especially brilliant plan. "Because you have one, right, Doctor?"

"A false Taranium core. I saw from the ship's planimetry that there is a laboratory, probably with some chemical substance in it. Now, luckily for us, most of the liquids and chemicals the Daleks use to live can be mixed to resemble solid Taranium. While you three pilot the ship, I will create that copy, and when, or if, the Daleks reach us, I will give it to them. They will take it to Kembel to activate the Destructor, and then…"

The Doctor's words were interrupted by the sound of an alarm, coming from the controls. The four travellers ran to see what the matter was, and to their horror, they saw that the coordinates of the ship's course were being redirected.

"They're changing course!" Sara exclaimed.

"We are moving away on a selected route!" Vicki added.

"Good gracious, we are on course for the planet Kembel!" the Doctor said, recognising the new route. "We are under the Daleks' influence, without a doubt."

"Well," replied Steven, the only one to be still calm amidst the chaos, looking at a green light flickering on the top of a small machine near the panel control, "it is obviously this who is causing the damage." And without another word, he just grabbed it and wrenched it free, splattering wires and cables all over the floor. "Here, that settles it!"

"Well done, Steven!" Vicki cheered, giving him a pat on the back, while the Doctor grimaced contently.

"Well… isn't that rather a drastic way of dealing with things?" asked Sara, trying to hide her own amusement.

"Officer Kingdom, the technology of my age may be hundreds of years behind yours and the Doctor's, but there are still some things I can handle."

"Yes, of course there is, my dear boy, of course there is!" the Doctor laughed. "You have surely bought us some time with your antiquate but efficient method, which I will put right to use. Steven, Vicki, set the coordinates for Earth and keep an eye on the commands. My dear miss Kingdom, would you mind assisting me while I prepare the false Taranium?"

"I…" Sara stuttered, taken aback by the proposition. "Of… of course! At your disposal!"

"Splendid," the Doctor smiled, gesturing her to follow him to the other room.

 

Since the room had no chairs to sit in (the Daleks didn't really need them), Vicki and Steven ended up sitting on the floor, legs crossed, once they had done setting the coordinates. Not that they really minded: after all the running and the excitement of the previous hours, this was actually a quite pleasant change. It allowed them to rest and get her head around what happened in the last few hours – which almost inevitably meant talking about their new companion.
"The Doctor seems to have taken quite a liking to her," Vicki said, in a not too pleased tone, which amused Steven. "I mean… I know he is eccentric and quite rash on his decisions, but… she killed Bret! She would have killed us too if she had the chance… It doesn't seem fair."

"No, it doesn't," Steven agreed. "But then, she knew no better."

"That's not an excuse for acting as she did!"

"I know, but what would you do about it? It is not like we can shun her or abandon her. Besides, she doesn't seem willing to defend herself for what she's done. I think she feels guilty for that and is trying to amend."

"Sounds like you have taken a liking to her too," Vicki muttered. Steven didn't answer but instead blushed like a fifteen-year-old boy caught with sticky fingers, a sight
which made Vicki's eyes widen in realization, and brought a smile to her face. "Oh, you have!" she exclaimed, laughing.

"So what?" Steven asked. "It's not like you took much time either to fall for Troilus" he spurted out, before realizing what he was saying. Vicki fell silent at his words, although the smile did not leave her face. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay," Vicki answered, shaking her head. "It does not hurt so bad now. In fact, it almost seems an event belonging to another life, when I think about it. I am even starting to think it would have been a really poor decision on my side: can you picture me living the life of a Trojan princess?"

"I must say I find it very difficult," Steven admitted. "You, away from all the technology? In a time where most of your knowledge makes no sense?"

"I bet you think you'd fare much better."

"Well, at least I could have been a warrior and going into battle. What would you have done? Sit at home and weave dresses?"

"I would have died of boredom very soon," Vicki assented, while she and Steven started laughing and smiling. It felt good, reinvigorating even, to be once again just the two of them, chatting and joking, as if they were just on the best of school-trips to another galaxy, and not escaping from mortal danger.

They were so intent on doing so they did not see the Doctor enter the room, on his face still a vizier from the laboratory. He had been attracted by the sound of their laughter and stood silent for a moment at the edge of the room, basking in the view of his two young companions having fun. It reminded him of less dangerous times when he thought he could just go around the galaxy as a tourist, careless and free, instead of being involved in a deadly battle for survival – which seemed to happen more and more times, he noticed for the first time. When had he become so keen on helping others?

"Oh, it's you," said Vicki to him, bringing him back to reality. "Something wrong?"

"No, no, my dear, we've almost done," said the Doctor, showing to them the grey cylinder he and Sara built. "An almost perfect copy of the Taranium core."

"It's excellent," Steven said. "May I?" asked then, tending his hand. The Doctor nodded, and gave it to him, while Sara reached them, taking off the vizier from her face.

"How do you propose to activate it?"

"Oh, we are working on that. Yes, we are working on that."

"Well, we could use the gravity force from the ship's power centre. I mean, there's a plug here, and surely there must be one in the lab."

"What?" Sara asked, with an amused smile, making quite clear she didn't think much of the idea.

"What's wrong with that?"

"Too primitive, my boy" replied the Doctor. "Too primitive and far too dangerous."

"Gravity force, as a source of energy, was abandoned centuries ago," Sara explained.

"We were still using it!" Steven protested.

"Oh yes, and the Romans used treadmills."

"Actually, they didn't," Vicki interjected, in Steven's aid. "They were far more advanced than that. And as for being too primitive, it's not like we did not do something like that before. I mean, Doctor, shall I really remind to you how did we get back into the TARDIS when you accidentally locked us out? In London, 1762?"

"Oh, yes, I remember," Steven exclaimed. "Didn't we go to Benjamin Franklin, who was still experimenting on electricity, for help? And didn't this involve using a kite and some wire to…"

"Yes, yes, yes, I know what you want to say," the Doctor interrupted, half irritated and half-amused, "but that time, as you said yourself, we were out of the TARDIS, with no way to get in, and we had to use what we could."

"And how is this time different?" Vicki insisted. "We have the Daleks on our trail, we'd probably soon arrive to Kembel where they want us, and we are outside of the TARDIS. What Steven suggested is the quickest way possible. "

"And as for the danger, Doctor," Steven added, "let me remind you that in London you were electrocuted as a result of that experiment, so don't tell me that it wasn't dangerous. Also, as a scientist, you surely would be able to tell some basic precautions."

"I'm sorry, what are you talking about?" asked Sara, completely befuddled. The Doctor ignored her and gazed at Vicki and Steven, his fingers tapping on the cylinder. He couldn't deny that his two companions had a point, but yet, he was very reluctant to involve himself, or someone else, into something whose effect could be quite devastating. He had just decided that he would first look around at what they had in the laboratory, before consenting to their idea, that the lights on the panel control flickered, recalling their attention.

"We are changing course again!" said Sara, reading the signals on the panel.

"Back to the planet Kembel," Vicki added.

"It appears as we are… affected by… magnetization," Steven concluded. "If that's so, there is no way we can change course now."

"That settles it," the Doctor sighed. "Very well, Steven, I will prove your theory, but let us be clear: I will not allow any of you to even touch that plug. I will connect personally the cylinder, and I want no interference from any of you, understood? We have already lost someone, I don't want to lose you too. Understood?"

"Understood," Steven and Vicki nodded. Sara said nothing, but there was no need for her to speak. Her position could be quite understood by the worried expression she had on her face.

 

But once again, Sara's worries were proven wrong. With the help of some chemical wires, the Doctor managed to connect the cylinder to the plug in an almost safe way; true, he had a light shock electrical shock in doing it, but it was nothing serious and he quickly recovered. By the time the four travellers landed on Kembel, they had a plan, and they were ready to put it into motion.

"Now remember, Steven," the Doctor said to the man, who held the false Taranium in his hand, "do exactly as I told you. Not one false move, or we may be doomed."

"Will do, Doctor," the pilot nodded. Behind him, Vicki and Sara had their guns ready to fire. The Doctor took a deep sigh and then opened the door of the ship.

Five or four Daleks stood in front of the entrance, their fire-guns aimed at them, the grey caskets a faint light in the darkness. Amidst them, a man stood, tall and imposing, with brown skin and a white beard. He looked calm and collected on the surface, but a greedy light shone in his black eyes, and his lips were contracted into what he presumably wanted to be a reassuring smile, but only looked like the grimace of a beast.

"Chen," Sara hissed angrily.

"The Taranium!" the man replied, looking at what Steven was carrying. He took some steps forward and held out his hand. "I would suggest you'd give that to me, young man."

"No," said the Doctor. "And remember, you cannot fire because of the Taranium. You'd have another fifty years work, eh?"

"Possibly," Chen conceded, "but you are still in no position to bargain."

"I will hand over the Taranium outside my ship, the TARDIS."

"You heard the conditions," said Chen to the Daleks.

"It is not – acceptable!" replied one of them, whose casket had a black cover, distinguishing it from the others.

"You heard what the Dalek Supreme said," Chen said again, and then made to speak again, but the Doctor interrupted by screaming at the top of his lungs.

"Outside my ship, the TARDIS, or nowhere!" So great was the force contained in those words that Chen took a few steps backward. He understood at once that there was no way of bargaining with this man. Therefore, he turned once again to face the Dalek Supreme.

"He seems… determined. Does it really matter?" A moment of silence followed while they all waited for the answer of the Dalek Supreme. Sara's finger slipped towards the trigger, but the former Space Security Agent was able to repress her will to fight. She had to trust the Doctor.

"Very well – in front – of his ship!"

The Doctor bowed and gestured for his companions to follow him. Steven obeyed, then Vicki. Sara was the last one to go, and in going passed near Mavic Chen, who called to her in a commanding voice, the same he used when he ordered her to find her traitorous brother. But this time, she had none of it.

"Traitor," she called him, right in his face.

They walked for some minutes until they reached the dark shape of the TARDIS. In normal circumstances, Sara would ask how they were going to fit all in there, but now she repressed all his doubts and just entered the ship when the Doctor ordered her and Vicki to do so. The Doctor then entered, before ordering Steven to hand over the Taranium to Chen and step inside in his turn. They waited anxiously, and they feared for the worst when they heard the Dalek shoot, but once again Steven was quick enough to dodge their lasers and get into the TARDIS in the nick of time. As soon as he was on board, the Doctor turned on the engines, and the familiar sounds of the TARDIS whooshing filled the room. They were once again on the road.

Only now Sara took notice of her surroundings, of the great white room that impossibly fit inside the small blue box.

"But… but… how… where… it's… it's…"

"Welcome aboard my ship, miss Kingdom," the Doctor greeted her, still bent over the panel control. "This is the TARDIS."

"It's… it's… incredible! How…"

"My dear, I will be glad to answer all of your questions, but now I have to set the coordinates of the ship. I have to try and get you on Earth in your time, and for doing that, I need all my concentration."

"You can say that again," said Vicki, with a bemused grin. "We wouldn't want to land in the Age Stone, thank you very much."

"Now, now, child, no need to be offensive, and give me a hand" the Doctor replied, trying to sound serious, but failing miserably. He fidgeted with the instruments for a while, pushing buttons and pulling levers, until he seemed satisfied. "Now, that should do it. All I have to do is to pull that l…"

A loud crash was heard, and the room of the TARDIS began to roll, making them slam against the wall, all of them. Another roll ensued, with all the travellers trying to hold onto something. The Doctor and Vicki managed to grab to the console, but Steven and Sara instead hit the wall, and for Sara, the blow was so heavy that she lost her senses and fell unconscious to the floor.

Chapter Text

"Sara! Sara! Can you hear me?"

Sara could only groan, as she slowly came to her senses. Steven's voice seemed to come from a very distant place, through a wall of dizziness and pain, and it took her a while to realize he was standing near her. She breathed very large breaths, sucking in and out the hair her lungs were desperately missing. Then, she carefully moved first her fingers, then her toes, her legs, her arms, to ensure she had no broken bone or internal bleeding. Eventually, Sara concluded she was all right and opened her eyes. To her amazement, she found herself on a beach, lighted by three suns. The sand beneath her was hot, but a cool breeze was passing in the air, getting the temperature down. Behind her and Steven, she saw the edges of a jungle, with large, dark trees.

"Where are we? What happened?"

"As for the first question, not a clue," Steven admitted. "But the Doctor and Vicki had gone there," and he pointed a finger in front of him, "to ask for information." Sara followed the lead, and saw, not far from where they were sitting, a shapeless amount of ruins of what she guessed had once been a spaceship. "And for the second question," Steven continued, "it looks like that ship tried to land inside the TARDIS, and it activated its emergency system."

"Well, that's for your TARDIS being a time machine."

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, come on, surely you don't believe that we bumped into another time machine, do you?"

"As crazy as it sounds, it is the only logical explanation. We were in the Vortex, no other normal ship could have followed us – well, maybe except the Daleks, but I don't see them accidentally losing control."

"Well then," Sara exclaimed, getting up (and refusing Steven's aid in doing so), "if that's so, let's go meet these colleagues of yours. I'm very curious about what they'd have to say about our future." Steven tried to ask if she was all right, but she rapidly moved away from him. As much as she appreciated Steven's altruism, she didn't need to be treated like a baby.

 

They arrived just as the Doctor and Vicki had managed to persuade the crew of the other ship that they did not represent a threat. The Doctor introduced them to the four people of the ship and their captain, a scientist named Natalie Lang. It was she to explain that they were indeed the crew of an experimental time ship, the Hank Morgan IV, and this was their maiden journey. They came from a time when humanity was at war with something they called ‘the Wall of Noise', and they were experimenting time travel as a means of defeating them.

"Well, I guess you'll have to give up," Steven sighed, looking at the relict. "I don't recognize the technology of your ship, but I can guarantee you this vessel is not going to fly anymore."

"But don't worry," Vicki added immediately. "As soon as we recover our ship, we could give you a lift home. Right, Doctor?" she asked him. But the Doctor dismissed her quite brusquely, and instead insisted that they go to see if something useful was still intact from the ship, and to make sure the engines would not explode. As they did that, the Doctor managed to stay a moment alone with his companions.

"These people do not trust us," he whispered to them. "They suspect we are on the side of their enemies. Be careful with what you say or do."

"But we know nothing about their war," protested Steven. "Have you told them when we've come from?"

"Yes, and it's ancient history to them," Vicki sighed. "So ancient they don't know what happened."

"And they couldn't tell us if they did," the Doctor firmly said. "You should know that, Vicki. We should never know about our future, foreknowledge is dangerous."

"All right, all right, Doctor," Sara intervened. "We have more pressing matters now at hand. We don't even know where the TARDIS is."

"Here, of course!" the Doctor exclaimed. "It stands to reason. We, these people, their ship, are all here, so the TARDIS must be as well. We just need to find it." Sara was on the point of asking how when a clap of thunder was heard. The sky, before clear, was now full of heavy, dark clouds; some drops of rain were already starting to fall on their faces.

"Oh, great," Steven sighed.

"We have to find shelter," Vicki added.

"This ship is no good," Sara noticed. "It's completely exposed."

"Everyone!" the Doctor called, speaking to Lang's crew too. "Grab what you can and get into the trees, now!"

 

For the next couple of hours, the group walked into the jungle, looking for some shelter. The trees rose on both their sides, tall, imposing and dripping with water. They were all soaked to the bone. The air was stiff and moist, making it hard to breathe, and what was worse, Lang and her crew found only little amounts of food and a small bottle of water in the ships. The travellers had no choice but going on, ever more tired and thirsty, hoping sooner or later to find someplace to rest. Even the Doctor, despite his steely will, looked tired after a while.

After a while, as they went through the jungle, they started to feel rather uneasy, a feeling which had nothing to do with tiredness or thirst. It was the feeling of being watched, of having a pair of eyes pointing directly at their backs. They couldn't see anything through the thick bushes, which only made that feeling even more disturbing. Steven and Sara, who went forward with two of Lang's men, were on the point of stopping and asking for a break to take a look around, when suddenly the jungle opened, revealing a large space of ground. Large boulders rose to form a natural cavity, against the back of a mountain: a perfect shelter from the rain. And in the middle of the plane, there was…

"It's the food machine from the TARDIS!" Vicki exclaimed.

"But it can't be! It can't be!" the Doctor exhaled in shock. But it was, as Steven found out by pressing some buttons, and it seemed also in perfect working conditions.

"Well, at least we are not going to starve," Sara said, trying to look at the bright side – but very much conscious of what the presence of this piece of equipment in the middle of the jungle meant.

"There's… there's got to be… an explanation…" the Doctor stuttered. His face was contorted in an expression so utterly desperate that everyone felt sorry for him. It was Natalie Lang that finally gave voice to what they were all thinking.

"It appears, Doctor, your ship has been destroyed."

 

They settled into the cave, making the best out of their environment. The place was mercifully well-repaired and dry, so the rain wouldn't be a problem if it kept going. With the food machine working, they were also to prepare a decent meal, also furnished with enough water. After this frugal but refreshing supper, Natalie Lang established turns of watch for the night, to which Steven and Sara joined. Vicki wanted to join too, but Natalie's men with Steven and Sara were more than enough to cover the night, so her contribution was deemed unnecessary. Finally, they went to sleep.

For all that time, the Doctor didn't say a word. He ate and drunk in silence, and in silence assisted to his companions setting down for the night. His eyes remained fixed on the food machine. When the watch began, Steven tried to persuade him to go to sleep, but the Doctor didn't seem to hear him. He stayed out of the cave while they slept or watched, looking at the skies turning clear again, at those foreign stars he could not understand or read.

When deep in the night, Vicki woke up after a few hours' sleep, he was still there, his back against the wall. In the moonlight, he looked like an old, battered statue.

"Doctor?" Vicki whispered. No answer came. Fighting against the instinct of going back to sleep, Vicki got up and crawled towards him, passing over Steven and Sara asleep.

"Doctor are you all right?" she asked again. Still silence. "Don't worry, we are going to be just fine. Tomorrow morning we'll get up and look again for the TARDIS. I don't think it has been destroyed, that old ship is too strong for that. The food machine must have been expelled together with us, it's not proof that everything has gone wrong."

She paused to see whether their words had been effective. The Doctor was still not looking at her.

"Of course, there may be some damages, but I'm sure you'll be able to repair it in no time. It's your ship, after all, nobody knows it better than you."

Was it a trick of the light, or had a faint smile appeared for one moment on the old man's face? Vicki hoped it was the last one.

"And even if it was destroyed… well… that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. Of course, I will miss the journey through space and time, the different historical periods, the dresses, the people… but, if I can be honest, Doctor, that wasn't the main thing of the TARDIS for me."

Silence fell for a moment, while Vicki recovered from what she just said, to think of what to say next. In the end, she decided on honesty. It was useless to keep dancing around the subject now that she started, and after all that happened, Vicki felt the need for being open and clear with one of the most important men in her life.

"When you found me on Dido, I was alone, with nobody to turn to, and you proved my only friend a traitor and a murderer. And even if I went to Astra, what would be the use? What could I have done, a barely fifteen-year-old girl? But then you came, Doctor, and you were kind to me, you listened to me, you… made me feel as someone was still caring for me. And then I came on board and it was… wonderful, being part of something again, having people around me… you, Ian, Barbara, Steven… you gave me a family, Doctor. You are my family."

Here Vicki had to stop, to wipe away a few tears streaming down her cheeks. The Doctor still didn't look at her, but her eyes seem now to shine more in the moonlight.

"That's why I'm not desperate about the loss of the TARDIS. I know what it meant to you, and I'm sorry, and maybe I'm selfish, but…"

"You're not," the Doctor interrupted her, at last breaking his silence. "I am," he continued, his voice shaking. "A foolish, selfish old dotard, who stole a time machine he couldn't possibly know how to drive. And I didn't take you with me for kindness, I had just said goodbye to my granddaughter, and I needed someone to lecture, because… because I wanted to feel important."

"Stop it, Doctor, you're nothing of the kind; or, if you are, you are selfish in the most altruistic manner I ever saw. What reason did you have to help the Zarbi, or to stop the Monk? Or to fight the Daleks, for that matter? You could have just walked away."

"And I condemned people to suffer. Katarina's dead, Susan is in a time and place different than her own, and we are stuck here, maybe for life. Ian and Barbara were wise, leaving me when they could."

"I am not suffering, Doctor, didn't you hear me? I am glad I'm with you, even with the TARDIS gone. I don't need the TARDIS to be happy, you are the TARDIS for me. I told you when Ian and Barbara left, and I tell you again: I want to be with you."

"And Troilus?"

"I made a mistake, Doctor, and you corrected me in time. You saved my life, Doctor, for a second time."

Vicki had barely finished speaking, that a strong arm pulled her close and held her tight against the lapels of a black, warm jacket. Vicki returned the Doctor's hug and held him tight too.

"Thank you, my child," the Doctor whispered. "Thank you."

 

The next morning, the Doctor was seemingly back to his usual, commanding self. While the group discussed what to do, he insisted for coming back to the beach to search for the TARDIS. To the great surprise of everyone, Natalie Lang agreed to the Doctor's request, and only opposed the idea that his companions went with him.
After all, she said, how else could he guarantee that, once they find the ship, they didn't just leave? Sara and Vicki volunteered to stay. They remained with Lang's group for a while, resting lazily in the shadows of the cliff. The rain had cooled the air, so the weather now felt less hot than the day before, and the light of the three suns lighted the jungle, making shine all the shades of green in the vegetation.

After a while, the two girls were interrupted by Claire, one of Lang's men. She had been ordered to climb up on the mountain and see the place from up high, so they could map their position; she was to take one of them with her, by Lang's orders. Once again, Sara volunteered: she wanted to move a little. Vicki remained alone amongst Lang's men, waiting for her companions to return.

And then, it all happened rather quickly. One moment they were all sitting in the lane, the next one they were all on their feet while the figure emerged from the forest. She was taller than a man, gaunt and pale, with long white hair and an emaciated face, two black holes where the eyes should have been. She moaned with a long, wailing sound, like that of a ghoul, and around her emanated such an air of death and decay they all took a step backward. Vicki tried to grab a gun, only to discover she didn't have one; so, she made a run to the forest, hoping to find the Doctor and Steven. As luck would have it, they were coming out from the jungle at that right moment, together with Natalie Lang.

"Vicki are you alright?" asked Steven. "Where's Sara?"

"She… she went up the mountain with Claire…" Vicki stuttered. "Doctor, what… what is it?"

"It must live here… The cave is probably his home!" Steven suggested. But the Doctor wasn't listening. He stood there, staring at the creature, his mouth hanging open
in disbelief.

"Impossible" he muttered. "It's… impossible!"

And then, the Doctor just walked straight towards the creature, ignoring Steven and Vicki crying to him to be careful, and stood in front of it, hands on the borders of his jacket, the stick in the hand, proud and straight and stout.

"Now, just you stop this at once! Do you hear me? I said, do you hear me? Now, cease!"

And the ghost did just that, vanishing into thin air as it never existed, leaving only a light smell of sulfur and ice. In a daze, the men came out of the trees, eyes wide open.

"Did… did you know that would work?" Steven asked, breathing heavily.

"What was that thing?" Vicki echoed him.

"A Time Sprite. They don't exist, they are a fairy tale, told to the children of my civilization. According to the story, there's one trapped in the heart of every TARDIS."

"Then if it's got out, the TARDIS must have been destroyed!"

"No, my child, I told you! They are a fairy tale; they are not real!"

"But we all saw it, that thing attacked us! Doctor, what does this mean?"

"It means…" the Doctor said, his face lightening with satisfaction, "I know precisely where we are."

"Doctor…" Steven whispered, turning him around. Natalie Lang and her men were surrounding them, guns aimed in threat to their chest, ready to shoot. The Doctor tried to calm them down, but Lang hit him with his gun grip, throwing him to the ground, before accusing him of betrayal. He promised her peace, she said, a chance to escape from war and bloodshed, and instead he brought her and his group in the grips of a monster he knew well. He was an enemy.

Vicki wanted to ask what she was talking about, but she didn't get the chance. As soon as he saw a chance, Steven lurched forward, grabbed a gun from another one of Lang's men and pointed it at Natalie's head, ready to shoot if she did not lower her weapon. The other four men closed in around him, their fingers tickling. All it would take was a false move from one of them, and then everyone would start shooting.

And then, a noise was heard from behind them, and Lang's men turned in that direction. Steven used this as an opportunity to move and grab the Doctor to bring him to safety, but Natalie saw him moving, and with a cold-ice precision, she shot at him. Steven dodged the laser ray, only to find himself directly in front of another man's gun, with no chance of escape. The man fired, and another figure leaped from the jungle and moved him away, taking the blast for him.

It was from Sara.

 

"No!" Vicki cried, seeing the woman falling to the ground, hands to her chest where a nasty burn mark showed. Steven and the Doctor ran to her, and the old Time Lord looked at the wound, trying to understand what the real damage was.

"You can save her, can't you?" Steven asked.

"I… don't know…"

"Doctor!"

"I don't know!" the Doctor angrily repeated, turning his gaze to the time pilots. Vicki saw that they had lowered their guns and looked ashamed of what happened as if they were regretting it.

"It's too late for your useless apology!" the Doctor shouted at Natalie Lang trying to apologize, all his body shaking with anger, as he still fumbled around the wound.

"Look at her! Look at her! Do you want to help? Her only chance is that you have medical supplies on your ship!"

"Yes, we do," she cautiously conceded. "But I can't allow you to go back there. I have to protect the secrets of my mission…"

"Nobody cares!" Vicki cried out, exasperated. "It's all pointless! Your ship is in ruin, you are stranded here with us, and nobody is coming to bring you home! And you almost killed a woman just because you thought it was your enemy, where all you had to do was thinking about what you were doing!"

"You travelled in time!" Steven also shouted. "You are not home anymore; your war is not here! What are you going to do? Fight everyone, everywhere, just because you think it could be an enemy? You are not scientists, you are murderers!"

"If you don't trust me, then send this young girl with one of your men," said the Doctor. "She does not have the strength nor the ability to turn against you, and I can assure you of her loyalty. You have no reason to mistrust her unless you want to have innocent blood on your hands!"

Natalie Lang looked at them: the fatally wounded woman lying on the ground, failing to keep her eyes open; the man holding her close as if he could keep life inside of her, tears dwelling in his eyes; the girl and the old man standing proudly, eyes blazing with rage and determination. She couldn't trust these men, could she? But then again, the girl was right. Would she let her die an innocent woman, to whom her war meant nothing?

"All right," she finally assented. "Danny, take the girl to the ship. Let her take what she needs, then bring her back here."

 

In the end, it all turned out for the best. When Vicki and the other man came back, they found that Sara had miraculously already healed, and was now in perfect health. So great was the general happiness at this news, that the Doctor proposed to prepare a little celebration, as a peace offer – even more so, since another day has passed, and the night was once again falling. With the help of the food machine, some quick but delicious meal was prepared, and they all soon gathered around another fire, laughing and joking as if nothing happened. Steven and Natalie told stories about their misadventures in military service, and the Doctor had everyone laugh when he recounted how he once lost the TARDIS at backgammon against the Emperor of China. It was all very nice, and everyone was enjoying himself; and yet, Steven, Sara, and Vicki kept glancing at the Doctor from time to time. They knew he did not forget the accident, and they also knew that the next morning, they would have the same problem they had before. And also, there was the obvious question, the one they were dying to ask the Doctor.

So, when the party at last ended, and everybody went to bed, the three of them caught the chance and gather around the Doctor, who insisted on having the first turn of the watch.

"Doctor, where are we?" asked Steven, going straight to the point. "What is this?"

"Oh, my dear, don't worry," the Doctor gently smiled. "Enjoy this chance to rest."

"Sorry, Doctor, but we can't pretend it's all right when it isn't," Sara intervened. "They have lied to me all my life. Isn't the truth more important?"

"It's almost… magical here," the Doctor replied, gazing at the stars, ignoring their questions.

"Magic is just a trick," Sara huffed.

"And that's what this is, isn't it?" Steven then asked. "Your fairy-tale Time Sprite, you said it's not real."

"And the suns, on the beach, were a three-body problem, a mathematical impossibility," Vicki added.

"And when we worried about food, we came upon the food machine," Steven concluded.

"Oh, all right," the Doctor sighed. "There had been clues, all along the way, which you rightly pointed out. I will give you another one. When we arrived here, I suggested we ought to look for the ship, and immediately started to rain, as if…"

"As if someone didn't want you to find it."

"Or, my dear, just wanted to distract me. That's what it is: a distraction."

"But from what?" Steven asked. "Why should someone distract us from finding the TARDIS, and still not threaten us in any way? If what you say is true, then this world had not been created to endanger us; on the contrary, aside from the Time Sprite…"

"Which went away as soon as you ordered him," Sara noticed. "So, that was not a real threat either."

"Wait, I think I got it!" Vicki exclaimed. "A being from a fairy tale of your people, the food machine, the three-suns problem… these things are all coming from your mind, Doctor! It's like on Hisk!"

"The city where all people shared dreaming," the Doctor smiled. "Yes, my child, it is something like that. What you see, what you feel, is an experience created out of my mind: my memories, his imagination, my interests. But mark my words: I am not creating it."

"Then, who…?"

"The TARDIS!" Steven understood. "It can't be anything else!"

"Precisely, my boy. We are, for all intents and purposes, inside the TARDIS. When we crashed into Lang's experimental ship, I set the emergency system. Since both ships were travelling in time and space, they were on the same dimension, and they ended up being inside one another. It almost tore us apart, but for the emergency system. The TARDIS contained the blast but at something of a cost."

"So, he put us somewhere safe while it was repairing? A ship?" asked Sara, in an evident tone of disbelief. "But how?"

"My dear miss Kingdom, the TARDIS is so much more than a ship: it almost has a life of his own. So much that it not only put us in a safe place, but it also gave us something to do, a mystery to keep us busy."

"Or to keep you busy," Vicki joked. "So, you would not interfere with the healing process."

"It seems like even the TARDIS doubts you as a mechanic," Steven laughed. "Honestly, I don't blame her. Last time you tried to ‘improve her', you sent us on an almost
abandoned mine on Ceres!"

"Oh, rubbish," the Doctor grunted, even if he was grinning at the memory. "Anyway, now you know what's happened. Don't tell a word to Lang and the others."

"Why?" Sara asked. "If what you say is true, then the TARDIS saved them too. Why shouldn't they know?"

"They are desperate men," the Doctor sighed. "They came here hoping to find a way to escape the problems of their time, either by winning their war or by finding a time and place where to live in peace. They suspect us of being a possible obstacle to their mission. They shot you, Sara, and if they think we are hindering their mission, they shall be more than ready to do it again. How do you think they'll react when they'll find out they are prisoners inside our ship? No, we should tell them nothing, until the illusion would be dispersed."

"And how long would that be?" Vicki asked.

"Alas, I am afraid it is already fading. If we had been able to understand the truth, this means the repairs are almost done, and soon we'll come back to the real world. That is why I strongly suggest you all go to sleep at once. Tomorrow may be very busy, and I fear an unpleasant day. Go and enjoy some hour of sleep while you can, hmm? Do not waste the magic until it lasts."

One after another, the three companions nodded and retired. Sara lingered a bit longer, maybe in search of some argument against the Doctor's motivation. But deep down, she knew he was right. These people were just like her before she met the travellers, soldiers trained to do their duty without questioning it. They had been indoctrinated, and unless something traumatic occurred, they would revert to their pre-established set of minds as soon as possible. She understood them only too well.

 

The next morning, the four travellers managed to convince Natalie Lang and the others to come with them to the beach. The Doctor told them he worked out where they were, and how could they escape. They trusted them, and altogether the group walked back to where they started. And on the sand of the beach, a few miles away from what was left of the experimental time machine, a door stood, solitary and white in the light of the three suns. When he saw that, the Doctor stopped and glanced at his companions. He said nothing, but there was no need. They understood each other fair enough. The Doctor then sighed, opened the door and led everyone in the TARDIS control room.

Here, with the help of Vicki, Steven and Sara explained what happened to the amazed time pilots. He even told Natalie he knew Sara wasn't dying when she shot her. In the fictional world the TARDIS created, they were all protected, and if someone got hurt, the ship would heal it. But he still had her send someone for medicines so that she could reflect upon what she did.

"Well then," he finally concluded. "Anyway, this is over. Now, we can work out what is to be done with you."

Everyone froze at these words, including the Doctor's companions. They all turned towards the Time Lord, standing behind the console, his hand on the controls and eyes intently staring Natalie Lang and her men.

"My companions know I can't control where the ship takes us, so in any case, I will likely be unable to take you home; but even if I could do it, I don't think I wouldn't. If you report to your people that your time drive has been a success, then all of the time would be at war. I simply can't allow that, oh no!"

"But that's not right!" Vicki exclaimed vehemently. "You can't do it; you are kidnapping these people!"

"Am I indeed? It's their technology that got them into this mess! Without me, they would have been killed!"

"But holding them against their will?" Steven protested. "Come on, Doctor!"

"What else could I do? I can't get them home, even if I wish to!"

"But you don't, do you?" Sara asked, anger rising in her voice. "You are not even going to try."

"It's out of my hands!"

"No, it is not," Natalie Lang said, stepping forward, the gun in her hands. "It was a neat trick, Doctor, I give you that. You almost persuaded me, back on the island. I could almost believe in you, in your promise of a better time and space. But there is no such thing, isn't it? Everywhere we would go, we'd find war and death and destruction. Well, then settles it. You will bring us back to our time, Doctor, and if you won't, I will force you! We are going to win our war and save our people!"

"I think you'll find you have no way of forcing me to do anything," the Doctor replied, unfazed. "Check the ammo on your gun." Natalie did just that, and to her horror, she saw that the laser charge of her bullets had been depleted. Her gun was useless. "I discharged all your weapons last night when you slept, exactly to prevent something like that. I am afraid there is nothing you can do, Miss Lang."

"But I can," Sara said, taking out her gun and pointing it at something she was keeping in her hand. It was the Taranium core.

"Sara, what are you doing?" Steven exclaimed in horror.

"Miss Kingdom put the gun down at once!" ordered the Doctor. "You will kill us all!"

"And why shouldn't I? If the Taranium core is destroyed, the Daleks will never complete the Time Destructor and my time will be saved; and if Lang and her men die, they won't report back to their own time and the war you want to avoid will never happen. So, tell me, Doctor, why shouldn't I fire?"

"And kill innocent people? I don't think you have it in you."

"Don't I? Let me remind you I killed my brother, just because I was ordered to. I thought it was right, and I did it."

"But you are not like that!" Vicki insisted. "You helped against the Daleks! You saved Steven's life! You worked with us!"

"All my life I had been conditioned to believe in what they told me, to surrender my individuality to the system. Guess what? It was a lie. My superior proved to be a traitor, my colleagues turned out to be my enemies, and I a mere pawn in their hands. How do you think I felt, eh? I wanted to die. I thought about it more than once as we escaped from Mira, even while we were on the island. What reason did I have to keep on living? Even if we defeat the Daleks, what there could be in my time for me? And then, in these last days on the island, I discovered I had been lucky. I had been given a second chance to put things right. You gave me this chance, even though I don't deserve it."

"My dear, your case is different…"

"In what? What has Natalie done yesterday that I didn't do to Bret? She was confused, and angry, and faced with something she couldn't possibly understand. You saw right through me on Mira, Doctor; you defended me in front of Steven and Vicki. Why can't you do the same now with them?"

"Their technology…"

"It is up to them how they use it! Yes, you are right, a war in time is a terrible scenario, but what if it did not happen? Why should this be the only outcome? Or your travels have so deprived you of any trust in humanity, that you had become blind to the possibility of goodness?"

A heavy silence fell after Sara ended her speech. The Doctor opened his mouth to reply, only to realize it was at a loss for words. The time pilots silently gathered around the stern figure of the Space Security Agent, with her gun still pointed at the core. After a while, Steven and Vicki joined them without a word. The Doctor was left alone behind the console.

"Very well," he sighed at least. "Put the gun down, Sara, and I will think of a place where to leave them. I can't bring them home, but I suppose I could find somewhere where they could start anew: a world with no war, no enemies, no fighting. Would that satisfy you?"
Sara glanced at Natalie Lang. She glanced back and nodded in response. Sara relaxed and put the Taranium core on the console. They had a deal.

 

A few minutes later, the time pilots stepped out of the TARDIS into one of the most beautiful places they ever saw. The Doctor had brought them to the Cobalt Moon, once a planetary mine, but now more like a garden, full of luxurious vegetation. A memorial, said the Doctor, to all the victims of war in humanity's history. It was long after the time of Lang and her crew, long after humanity ultimately won the war against the Wall of Noise. Here, they could have the fresh start they wanted.

"Thank you," Lang said to Sara, shaking her hand. "I will never be able to repay you."

"Just make the best of this place," Sara replied. "That would be enough."

"Come along, Sara!" the Doctor cried out, from the TARDIS' door. "We cannot linger here; we have a mission." Sara obeyed and, with a sigh, walked back into the TARDIS. Steven and Vicki were already there, sitting against the wall, while the Doctor set the coordinates. She glanced one more time at the screen, at Lang and her men starting to explore their new home. In a way, she envied them. They at least had found peace, while they had to come back to their war against the Daleks.

A soft hand touched her arm. It was Vicki.

"You did good," the young girl said. "I was wrong in misjudging you. I am sorry." Sara just smiled and patted her shoulder, while hope filled her very soul and heart. Never in her life, she experienced this absolute feeling that she was truly doing the right thing.

Chapter Text

"Fascinating … fascinating," the Doctor muttered, gazing at the giant mechanisms around them. Sara, Steven, and Vicki reached him, hands on their ears, in a vain

"Fascinating … fascinating," the Doctor muttered, gazing at the giant mechanisms around them. Sara, Steven, and Vicki reached him, hands on their ears, in a vain attempt to shut off the terrible noise of the cogs and the chains.

"What the hell is this place?" Steven asked, shouting as loud as he could to cover the noise.

"It's a clock!" the Doctor answered, with a delightful chuckle. "A giant clock! Look!" he then exclaimed, pointing a finger in front of him. "See? That's the pendulum, swinging left and right! Wonderful, absolutely wonderful! What an ingenious technological marvel!"

"Yes, it is all wonderful, but can we go now?" Vicki asked. "This noise… I can't bear it!"

"Oh nonsense, child, nonsense! You mean you stand in front of this magnificence, and you are not curious to see how it works? I expected better from you, Vicki! Come along, come along, we don't have time to lose!"

"And here he goes," Steven sighed, while the Doctor leaped forward, with his usual excitement.

"To get us all in more trouble, likely," Vicki added, with a resigned smile. "We'd better follow him."

"Yes, you're right, we wouldn't want him to get harmed," Steven agreed. "Sara, are you coming?"

No answer came, so Vicki and Steven turned back. Sara stood on the edge of the giant wheel they landed on, looking down on the gears working beneath her. Her eyes were distant as if she was looking to something far away, and she had a perplexed, concentrated expression on her face.

"Sara?" Vicki asked, touching her tentatively on the shoulder. "Are you all right?"

"What?" Sara said, coming out of her stupor. "Oh, I'm sorry, I… I was just… never mind. Do we reach the Doctor?" And she surpassed them both on the way to the Doctor. Steven and Vicki exchanged a worried glance. After the events of the last days, they were slowly but steadily starting to trust Sara Kingdom, at least as much to know that it was never a good sign to see her worried or distressed.

They pressed on, at the heels of Sara and the Doctor, climbing their way up through the maze of cogs, pulls, wheels and chains. Theirs hears finally managed to adapt to the noise, but still, their bodies could not adjust to the increasing heat they felt as they went on. It sat heavy on their minds and limbs, an ever more growing burden that made them wish to relax, rest, and enjoy the wondrous sight they were immersed in. Only the sheer will of the Doctor led them on, but even he had his limits.

Finally, the Doctor sat down, helped by Sara. Vicki and Steven quickly reached them, and the four travellers sat, catching their breaths.

"How big is this damn thing?" Steven asked.

"Very big," the Doctor replied. "In fact, so big it is a mystery to me how it was built. I have seen many buildings, but nothing so complicated. Not even the Dalek capital on Skaro was so well organised, and you all know the Daleks are terribly good at building."

"What do you think it does?" Vicki asked. "I mean, they surely didn't build it just to measure time!"

"And why not?" the Doctor grinned. "You have been in London before, my dear, you saw Big Ben. Giant clocks have always been a staple of modern civilizations."

"Yes, but this is definitely over-the-top," Vicki laughed, followed by the Doctor and Steven. Only Sara didn't join in the laugh. She was still looking at the Clock, with the same worried expression she had before.

"Doctor," she said when they stopped laughing, "when we landed, you said you were not piloting the TARDIS, that it did… stop on its own accord. Is that right?"

"Y-yes, I said so, but…"

"Do you think it has something to do with it? The Clock? Could it have done… something to the TARDIS?"

"What? Oh no, my dear, that would be absurd! As giant as it could be, this Clock is just a clock! It can measure time, but it can not dictate it, and the TARDIS would be vulnerable only to things effecting time itself, so…"

"But we were driven off course, were we?" Sara insisted, now in a louder tone of voice. "Why do you think it happened?"

"Sara, what's the matter?" asked Vicki. "You've been acting strange since we arrived. Is there something wrong?"

"No, nothing, just… I keep feeling I know this place!" Sara burst out. "It's… it's… familiar in some way!"

"Maybe you were here before," Steven suggested.

"No, I would remember it," Sara insisted. "It's more like… like something I heard when I was in the Service… I can't remember!" she frustratedly cried. "And this terrible noise, this heat only makes things worse! I have to get out of here!"

"Now, now, miss Kingdom, calm down," the Doctor chimed in, putting a hand gently on her shoulder. "I didn't want to disrespect your feelings, my dear, I'm sorry. Just sit awhile and relax. You'll see it will all come back to you. There you go, just like that," he added, as Sara followed his advice. "Now, tell us what you feel and…"

"Doctor," Steven suddenly whispered. "We are not alone." He got on, looking at a point somewhere above their heads. "There's someone there."

Vicki, the Doctor, and Sara immediately went to their feet and followed the finger Steven was pointing. And after a while, through the dim light, they could see more or less clearly a human shape moving just below the giant cog ahead of them, smooth and silent, but all the same visible.

"Maybe he can give some answers," Vicki suggested. "I mean, a clock so big must have someone to care for it."

"There's no harm in trying," the Doctor decided. "Come on, Steven, lead the way!"

***

Under Steven's leadership, the travellers once again resumed their climbing. Their path led them along a great chain hanging from the ceiling to the bottom, only a few inches away from the monstrous pendulum. The way was steep, and they had to stop twice to wait for the Doctor, whose old body barely managed to keep the pace of his younger companions. At least, though, they arrived at their destination: a thin, solid ledge on the side of the Clock, where the object of their pursue stood.

He was an old man, as Steven said: a gaunt, fragile figure, with only a few sparse hairs on his head, a saggy face, and small, squinting eyes.

"Hi," Steven said, waving a hand. "Sorry to disturb you, we were wondering if you could help us."

The man didn't answer. Assuming he had not heard, the travellers came closer, and Steven gently touched his shoulder.

"We don't want to cause any trouble. You see, we got here by chance, and we are looking for…"

The old man turned towards Steven, in response to his touch. His eyes were distant, cold, but not empty or shallow. He looked directly at the young pilot, but he clearly did not see him; on the contrary, he passed him by and spread out an arm in a vain attempt to grab the chain passing by. He failed to do so, and he tried again, three or four times, before giving up and coming back to where they found him. All the time, he did not once acknowledge their presence; on the contrary, he muttered to himself, as if he was absorbed in some deep thought.

"Leave it, Steven," said the Doctor. "I don't think the poor fellow is in any condition to talk to us."

"What happened to him?" Vicki asked.

"No idea," the Doctor replied worriedly. "But, I have some nasty suspicions…"

"He is not alone," Sara affirmed. She was looking into the dark of the Clock, right ahead of them. They followed their gaze: on the other side of the room, and along the walls of the Clock, more human shapes were coming out. Even with that scarce light, it was impossible to mistake them for anything else: old men, scrambling around the mechanisms, moving amongst the machinery as they were part of it.

"Maybe they are the caretakers of this place," Vicki uneasily suggested.

"I don't think so," Steven grimly replied. "I think they are slaves."

"They are not slaves," a commanding voice said from behind them. "Stay where you are!" It was a woman, young and stern, dressed in a dark blue uniform and holding a gun against them. Sara gasped when she saw her. She knew that uniform: it was the same one she was wearing even at that moment, the Space Security Service uniform. They landed into her own time, the one they had been escaping from with the taranium.

They were in big trouble.

***

The young agent drove them out of the Clock room, through grey, uniform corridors, for at least twenty minutes, before stopping in front of a cell. She pressed some buttons on a nearby console and unlocked the door, then urged the four travellers in. The room where they entered was almost entirely bare, except for a small bed and a chair. The guard locked the door and then left them here.

"Now what?" asked Steven. Nobody answered. The Doctor sat against the wall of the room, fatigued from the climb and the walk; Sara stood beside the door, her arms crossed, looking defeated. Vicki and Steven rapidly exchanged glances, then the first one kneeled near to the Doctor, and the second cautiously approached Sara.

"Ask me if I am all right, and I'll punch you," Sara immediately said, when he opened his mouth. "I am very far from being all right at the moment."

"I sort of gathered that," Steven admitted. "But, at least now, you may know where we are."

"For all the good it will do to us knowing it," Sara huffed. "This is the Great Clock. I heard talk about it in the Service. A giant mechanism, built in the heart of the Earth Empire, whose ticking keeps it together."

"How?"

"How should I know? Until an hour ago, I didn't even think it existed! I thought it was only a rumor, like many others of my colleagues. Its existence had never been confirmed!"

"But the guard… she was wearing your uniform! And there may be others like you, here! Do you mean to tell me that your associates were sent to guard a place you thought was a legend, and none of you did say it was real?"

"Oh, I wouldn't be surprised if every single one of the guards working had sworn never to say anything of this place," Sara bitterly replied. "And, as you well know, in my time, we were very good at obeying orders."

Steven thought of replying, but then restrained himself. Sara was in no mood to argue and, even if she were, they had already gone through this discussion about obedience when they first met her. "Well, now, what do you think it'll happen?"

"They will run some quick research through their database, and will find nothing on you, but they surely will find something about me. Then, they will contact Chen and tell him what happened, then they'll come for the taranium, and everything will be over."

"And how long will all of this take them?"

"The search? Ten minutes, no more. The answer? Even less. We have an hour if we are lucky before they realize who we are."

"Then we have to be quick," Steven concluded. "Any idea on how the lock works?"

"What's the use?" Sara asked, going to sit on the bed, with a resigned sigh.

"Oh, come on!" Steven urged her. "We can't give up now! Not after everything we've gone through!"

"And we ended up right back at square one," Sara sighed. "It was useless."

"No, it was not!" Steven cried out angrily. "I do not believe it! Katarina, Bret, they can't have died for nothing! And I'm not sitting here, waiting for them to kill me!"

"And what would you do?" Sara inquired, with a bemused smirch. "Go out there, a gun in your hand, charging desperately for your life? You'll only get yourself killed."

"It would still be better than just resigning! I thought you were stronger than this!"

The words just left Steven's mouth, that Sara was on her feet, a hand contracted into a fist, and only the quick intervention of Vicki stopped her from just jumping on Steven and beating him senseless. "How dare you? Do you have any idea how I feel right now? I hoped I could change this by coming with you! To give a sense to my brother's death… to me, killing him! And instead, I am here, back in my time, and everything I did will amount to nothing in a matter of minutes! You… you…"

"Calm down, everyone!" the Doctor shouted, struggling to rise from where he seated. He was just beginning to stand when the sound of the door being unlocked broke up the fight. The same guard who led them here entered the room and motioned Sara to follow her. Sara obeyed her, not without glancing at Steven with a look of bitter satisfaction. The Service had completed its research.

***

As soon as Sara and the guard were out, Vicki, the Doctor, and Steven began to work on the lock. While the girl stayed by the door and listened to any noise outside, the two men fidgeted their way on the door, proving different combinations and sets, trying to act as calm as possible, given the circumstances. Eventually, they were able to understand its working, and after Vicki made certain no one was around, they opened the door and came out of the cell.

They found themselves in a vast corridor of a uniform, monotonous grey. The travellers took some moments to recover their bearings, and then, after figuring out which way they went from, they turned in the other direction. To their surprise but also relief, no guards were about to be seen. The Doctor speculated that, given the nature of the Clock, this place did not need a large garrison to be watched: his prisoners were kept busy working on the machinery, and that was so complicated they couldn't possibly think to escape.

They came to another long corridor, this one with many doors on both sides. Steven cautiously took a look at one of them: it was a deserted office, with a desk at its centre; on top of it, there was a computer and a keyboard. Hurriedly, the three of them entered, and Vicki, using her skills in informatics, hacked into the system and looked for information about the Clock.

"3999?" Steven asked, puzzled when they saw the date. "But that means…"

"We've landed a year before our meeting with Bret on Kembel," the Doctor confirmed.

"This is good, right? It means we have not done anything yet to these people…"

"Yes, my child, but it could also mean trouble. Keep looking, see if we can find out where they had taken Sara."

Vicki obeyed and kept on looking. They finally found out the answer they searched, and their blood turned cold. The computer stated that Sara had been taken for questioning to the superior officer of the place, Bret Vyon, and then to the Guardian of the Solar System in person, Mavic Chen, here on a routine visit.

"Now we are really in trouble…" Steven exhaled, passing a hand through his hair.

"Not necessarily," the Doctor muttered. "On the contrary, my boy, given the circumstances, I would say we had been lucky."

"Lucky?" asked Vicki, amazed. "But Sara…"

"Sara is a Space Security Service agent, her presence here could be explained somehow. More importantly, she is Bret's sister, she is known to him. If one of us, on the other hand, had been brought to Bret or Chen, that would have probably caused a time paradox: they would have met us before our real first meeting in a year."

"But what if she says or does something that could reveal what will happen?"

"Who says they will believe her? Or maybe that's what happened, maybe she is contributing to keep history on its course. No, my boy, I don't think we have to worry about Sara."

"Even so, we have to go looking for her. We can't just leave her here."

"Have you not listened to me, my child? We can't do that; we'd risk incurring into the same time paradox we just avoided! And besides, we have other things to worry about. I don't think that, as the Clock would keep on working, we'll be able to leave it: the TARDIS is powerful, but it still relies on space-time continuity to work, and, as we saw, the Clock disrupts it to allow hyperspace travel. If we want to leave, then first we have to sabotage the Clock."

"And how do you propose we'll do that?"

"We go back to the mechanism and look for a weak link, of course! As perfect as this machine is, there still needs to be a break-up in the system, something not working. We'll find out what and exploit it to stop it, at least for enough time we need to escape."

"But what about Sara?" Vicki insisted. "How will she know where to reach us?

"Well," said the Doctor, carefully, "I suppose that, when the Clock stops working, she will realise why, and come back to…"

"What if she's unable to? What if they keep her prisoner somewhere? Or if they take them back to our cell?"

"We can't do anything about it!"

"Yes, we can," Vicki insisted. "There's no need for all three of us to go down to the Clock. You two go and look, I will reach Sara and keep an eye on her."

"I'm with Vicki on this one, Doctor, except I'll go," Steven interjected. "She will be safer…"

"Really, Steven?" Vicki cried. "You still think I need protection? Besides, I don't gather Sara would want to talk to you after your last fight."

"It would still be dangerous. If Bret or Chen see you…"

"Then I'll be careful they don't. Look, Doctor, it's simpler this way. You two stop the Clock, I will lead Sara to you. And if something goes wrong with you two, we'd still be able to help; otherwise, she will be alone here."

"All right then," the Doctor conceded. "I don't like it, don't like it at all, but we have got no time to argue. Come along, my boy, we have work to do. Good luck, my child."

Chapter Text

As soon as the Doctor and Steven were off, Vicki did quick research through the computer to locate Chen's office. When she found it, she rapidly memorized the route to get there. Then, she looked for a laundry or a deposit of uniforms: if she had to move around, it would be better she did so in disguise. Luckily for her, there was one just down the corridor, so, in the end, it was pretty simple for her to reach it and find a uniform of more or less her size. Now, she could go looking for Sara.

She reached the floor, where Chen's office stood some minutes later and saw them immediately. Sara and Bret were just at a few feet away from her, leaning against the wall. They were laughing and smiling at each other. Sara, in particular, had a smile of pure happiness and relief Vicki never saw on her. She couldn't help to feel a pang of pain as imagined what should this be like for her – meeting your own brother one year before his death… one year before you kill him. And then realised she didn't have to imagine it. Except for the part of killing someone, she knew the feeling all too well.

Her train of thought was interrupted as another officer reached them, bringing a piece of paper with him. Bret took it and handed it over to Sara, the smile still on his face. But Sara, this time, didn't smile back. As soon as she saw the paper, her face turned deadly white, and her nether lip trembled, while their hands clutched that little piece of paper with so much violence, she almost tore it apart. Then, out of the blue, she started to sob desperately over her brother's shoulder, as Vicki helplessly watched Bret trying his best to console his weeping sister. She saw the two-part, and Bret handing her over to the other watch, who motioned for her to follow him. But instead, Sara excused herself and strutted away, passing by Vicki and disappearing behind another door. Vicki took a moment to check the soldier was not looking and quietly slipped through the door herself.

She found herself in what she guessed was a bathroom, probably one of the service toilets for the guards, with three booths on her right, and a row of basins on her left. It wasn’t difficult to guess where Sara was, her miserable sobbing was only too easy to hear. Vicki advanced and knocked at the door of the booth.

“Just a moment.”

“Sara, it’s me. It’s Vicki.”

For a moment, Vicki heard her companion fumble with the door before opening it. Her eyes were moist, and her cheeks wet for the tears still running down. "W-what are you doing here?"

“We managed to open the cell and escape. The Doctor and Steven went to the Clock, they are trying to rig it so we can escape. I went looking for you.”

“What did you see?” Sara asked. Her policewoman intuition already made her guess that Vicki saw something and was only restraining to ask.

“Do you want to talk about it?” asked Vicki in return. Sara eyed her for a minute and then quietly, silently, nodded. She came out from the booth, and the two of them sat on the ground, legs crossed.

Sara told Vicki how she was brought to Bret, how she was elated, relieved to see him, and also how she understood they travelled back in time. He thought she was on some sort of secret mission, and she let him believe that thus avoiding any further questioning about her current presence. She then told him she was there because she was curious about the Clock and wanted to know whether the rumours were true. Bret then started explaining to her that the Clock was used as a way of punishment for its inhabitants. The people working here were smart people, too smart for their own good, people, who asked questions and then started spreading falsities and lies. Bringing them to the Clock was a way to confine them, while also having them do something useful for society: they took care of the Clock and fed it with their minds. The Clock's mechanics were based on psychic energy, he added: it fed on the mental activity of their minds. It also prevented them from trying to escape by keeping them busy.

"That's horrible," Vicki commented. Sara nodded and confirmed that Bret, too, was not pleased with it. Then, Sara asked why all of this, what did the Clock do. Bret didn't know and thus sent her to the only other man capable of answering the question: Mavic Chen.

And then, the real trouble began, but not how Sara expected. The Guardian of the Solar System was friendly, kind, courteous. He was reading about her encounter with Daleks on M5 and was impressed by what Mark Seven wrote about her. He confessed that the Clock was the real source of the power of the Solar System: it bent space and time with its movements, allowing spaceships to travel fast across the stars. Otherwise, keeping in touch with all the regions of the Earth Empire would be quite impossible, leading it to collapse. It was a secret Chen received from his predecessors, but he also said, was thinking of an alternative way. He didn't like the Clock, not just for humanitarian reasons, but also because, if the secret would ever come out, people would be horrified about it. That is why he was seeking other sources of energy – and maybe, he suggested, she could help.

"Don't tell me that…" Vicki breathed, beginning to understand where this was going. With a sad smile, Sara confessed she started advising Chen, discussing with him how this could work, the alliances they had to make, and the enemies they would face.

“I know it was foolish, but… I hoped I could change things,” she admitted while trying to hold back tears. “My brother… I just had found Bret again, and… and… I didn’t want him to die, I don’t want to kill him… And now Chen was asking me advice, and I thought… I thought…”

"What happened next?" Vicki quietly asked. There would be time to come back to this, for the moment Sara needed to tell the whole story.

Chen said the advice she gave him was precious. In fact, he was so satisfied that he would immediately give instructions for her to be transferred on Earth in his direct service. Sara rejoiced at the news, thinking that, with her at his side, maybe Chen would not become a traitor. She and Bret had waited for the promotion, enjoying some time together after too much time. Sara managed to tell him everything she never told him: how she admired him, how he was always a model to her, and how good a man he was. And then, the promotion came, and all of this just crumbled into dust.

"I suppose you guessed which year this is. Well," Sara continued when Vicki nodded, "in that year, at this moment, I… the younger me… is stationed on Venus, on a six-month assignment. In a few hours, she is going to receive the news she has been promoted, for reasons she couldn't possibly understand. She will take a shuttle to Earth and then… well… you could figure out the rest. So much for changing the future, eh? I just put in motion."

Sara said the last sentence with what she probably thought was a sad joke, but Vicki didn't laugh. She waited in silence for the other to go on if she wanted. But Sara seemed to have used all her words and stood silent, her eyes against the opposite wall, tears running silently down her cheeks. At last, Vicki spoke.

“You know how I met the Doctor, right?”

“What?”

"After my mother died, my father took a job on Astra. He and I embarked on the UK-201, a space cargo that was supposed to bring us there. We never made it. A man called Bennett sabotaged the ship, and it crashed on Dido, a planet on the way of Astra. Then, he killed all the crew and passengers as well as the inhabitants of the planet, while they were offering us a welcome dinner. I just survived because I got sick and was unable to attend. Bennett kept me hostage for months, pretending that an evil being called Coquillion was keeping us prisoners. He planned to call a rescue ship, then tell its crew that he saved me from the slaughter of the entire crew. The Doctor arrived three days earlier than the rescue ship. Steven wasn't with him at the time, there were other two people… Ian and Barbara."

“Yes, I heard of them.”

“So, they discovered the truth, stopped Bennett, and then took me with them. You can figure out the rest.”

“I am sorry about…”

“Oh, don’t worry, I got over it. Instead, answer me this: what do you think I would have done if I had a chance of saving my father and everyone else on the ship and avoid the crash?"

Sara opened her mouth to speak, but then abruptly stopped when she realized what Vicki was asking: not was she, Sara Kingdom, would have done, but what she thought Vicki would have done. The oddity of the question left her speechless: why would she ask about it… And then she got it.

“You mean it happened to you too? You… you landed on…”

"No, we didn't, it was a malfunction in the TARDIS. But yes, I was brought back in time, back on the day of the crash. I saw my father again, and all the other people Bennett was going to murder. Now, what do you think I did?"

“I assumed you just let history take its course,” Sara sighed.

"Wrong. I saved my father, I saved everyone. Then, I went on living my life on Astra. I got married, I had two daughters. One of them was killed while she was on a humanitarian mission, the other became President of the Federation. I became famous as a children's writer and..."

“But that’s not possible!” Sara interjected. “How could you… How can you be here, with the Doctor, with me, and…”

"Because I couldn't die. When finally, my hour came, I found out that some horrible creatures… Reapers, I think the Doctor called them… they have been chasing after me all my life. My all existence was a paradox, something not supposed to happen. Steven and the Doctor managed to keep them at bay, but now there was no protection. I was out of time, literally and completely. If I wanted to make things correct again, I had to…"

"To let your father die," Sara breathed. Vicki nodded as she forced tears back. She was not going to cry over something that had never existed, she was not going to suffer for what was just a scar.

“So, I went back, where everything started. I made sure the ship crashed, I made sure my father die. I made sure the Doctor would find me and take me with him. He offered me to help me forget my other life, but I refused. I wanted, I want, to remember it, every single moment, every joy it gave me. The lesson I learned was too important to forget."

And with that, Vicki rose up and went to Sara, kneeling to look the other in the eyes.

“You were not foolish nor stupid. We all have something we want to change in our past, whether it is a mistake we did or just something bad happening. You are only human, and no matter whatever they told you in your training, there is nothing wrong with that. But we can’t change the past. It made us what we are now, for good or bad; it gave us our strengths and our weaknesses, and if we change it, then maybe we will destroy something good that life intended to give us. And maybe, this will mean we’ll be unable to change the future.”

“I can’t see any future for me,” Sara sniffed. “Even if we stop Chen… what would I go back too?”

"Maybe you won't. Maybe you're not meant to go back. Do you think that Steven and I have something, or someone, back home? Well, we don't, and you know what, we don't care. I lost my father, but I have the Doctor. I lost my mother, but I have Steven. I lost my world, but I have all the time and space. I wanted to stop at Troy, that’s true, but if I did, who would be here now to listen to you? I’m not saying you have to smile, to pretend not you don’t suffer: you have a right to do that, Bret was your brother and your world collapse. What I’m saying is that you should look at how lucky you are.”

“Lucky?”

"Did the Daleks win? No. Is your galaxy, your Empire, defeated? No, it isn't. And we met Lang and her crew, so we know the human race will survive the conflict if there's going to be one. You have been allowed not only to avenge your brother's death but also to allow all your civilisation the chance to avoid slavery and death. Doesn't this matter more than what happened to Bret?"

Slowly but steadily, Sara felt her lips opening into a smile behind the tears, as Vicki's words filled her hears. Warmth and hope engulfed her into a fuzzy feeling of acceptance, so different from Chen's cold-hearted words of appreciation.

"Thank you," she whispered. Her eyes were still red, but now her heart felt lighter.

“You’re welcome,” said Vicki, before they heard knocking at the door. They’d better move.

***

Thanks to the security being scarce, the two women managed to get back to the Clock Room. Then, they started descending through the cogs, the chains, and the wheels of the giant mechanism. Around them, the wheel turned, the gears worked, and the old men were bent on their repetitive task, deaf to everything else. Down and down they went, fighting against the noise, forcing themselves to put one foot after the other, until they finally arrived at the base of the Clock.

The Doctor and Steven were already there, all right. The Doctor tampered with a chain slightly above his head, while Steven was trying to find a place where to put something in a wheel and jam it. Vicki and Sara run to them.

“Doctor!” Vicki said, grabbing his shoulder. “Doctor, we’re here! Let’s go!”

The Doctor didn’t seem to hear her. He just brushed her off and came back to examining the chain.

“Oh, come on! This is not a good time for experiments!” Vicki cried, tugging at his sleeve. Still no answer. Vicki then grabbed him at the shoulders and turned him around to talk to him but fell silent when she saw his eyes. They were void, empty of any emotion, just as those of the old men working at the Clock.

“Doctor?” she whispered. He just turned back to his work.

"Him too?" asked Sara, reaching her. Vicki nodded as she understood what she meant. "I couldn't stir Steven either. They are under the influence of the Clock."

“But… but how?”

“Well, the Clock does feed on his prisoners’ thoughts, Bret told me so.”

“All right, but we were here only for a few hours! How is it possible?”

“Maybe it works very fast…”

“And does what? Bend the will of his prisoners? Fix their mind on the task they must do, so they don’t wish to escape? That would take days, months, especially with such a mind as the Doctor’s! It couldn’t work that fast, or it would have done so even when we first arrived!”

Sara had to say she had a point. She could think of the other prisoners being taken here after days of torture. Still, the Doctor and Steven had not been subjected to any treatment of that kind.

"All right, let's just be calm and think about it," said Sara, hands-on Vicki's shoulders. "You are right, if the Clock works as you said, it couldn't do that fast to both the Doctor and Steven, so that is to exclude. We also have to keep in mind that, unlike the other prisoners, they did not come down here to work at the Clock or take care of it."

“Then what happened?” asked Vicki.

"Patience, Vicki, patience," Sara shushed her. Her instinct of policewoman, which made her one of the best Space Security agents of her year at the Academy, was now kicking in. "The Doctor and Steven came here to destroy the Clock or at least sabotage it. And since such a will could not be overcome in such a short time, therefore we must conclude that this same instinct is what the Clock worked on to trap them. And on that term…"

Sara trailed off, her eyes turning back to the Doctor and Steven, as an idea slowly but steadily formed into her mind. She observed them, taking notes of the direction of their eyes, of the movement of their hands. And the more she saw, the more her intuition became reliable, logic, functional.

“Vicki, see if you can spot one of the other prisoners. I want you to look at him and tell me what he is doing.”

Vicki obeyed. It took her some time, but finally, her eyes spotted one of the old men a few blocks above them. He was pulling a chain, trying to cut it off from the mechanism; if he succeeded, the cogs on his head would have crumbled. But he was too weak, and after a while, he had to let the chain go. Still, he grabbed it once again and tried another time, and then another, and then another…

“Just as I thought,” Sara smiled, satisfied. “These prisoners are not taking care of the Clock. They are trying to dismantle it, just as the Doctor and Steven. And that is what the Clock is feeding on: their attempts to escape.”

"Of course!" Vicki exclaimed as she got it. "Bret told you that the prisoners here are free-minded people, people who make questions!"

“Precisely,” said Sara. “You can put such men in prison, but you can’t stop them from thinking. They may not be able to escape, but they will still make questions, observe, ponder. They will still be dangerous. But if you give them a problem to solve, and you exploit it…”

“They will be so absorbed in doing it that you can make them forget anything else,” Vicki concluded for her, shuddering it. “It’s diabolical.”

“Yes, it is,” Sara agreed. “But also, highly effective, as you see.”

“So, now what? How do we snap the Doctor and Steven out of it?”

“I don’t know, I need a moment to think about it,” Sara sighed. The previous excitement for her discovery was gone, and now her mind started thinking about the next problem. How could they get out of this? Surely not by sabotaging the Clock, that would just trap them with all the others. They could grab the Doctor and Steven and push them into the TARDIS, but they didn’t know how long the effect worked, and it could instead be possible that it lasted as long as they were inside the Clock. No, they had to stop it in some way, they have to find a way to stop this infernal noise, this hellish machine…

“Sara, look out!” Vicki cried, pulling her back from the cog she was about to touch. Sara panted as she realized what risk she just took. The Clock had started to work inside her mind without her realizing, to full her desire to escape and…

And then, suddenly, Sara knew what they had to do, how could they stop the Clock. A solution so simple, so logical, and thus impossible, the only one even their superiors would dismiss as impossible. A laugh rose from her chest to her shoulders, and she laughed relieved and victorious, to Vicki's amazement and worry.

“Oh, Vicki, it’s so simple! All we have to do is not fight the Clock, to let it have its way!”

“What?”

"Yes, Vicki, think about it! This machine is built on a principle of opposition, as a pendulum: the pull on one side is contrasted with the pull on the other, and they form just one movement, one mechanism. We think to escape, the Clock traps us into this thought. But what would happen if we stop thinking of escaping? If we just let the Clock win?"

"He will trap us more easily?" Vicki suggested, not entirely sure.

"Possibly, but I don't think so," Sara replied. "It is not designed for that. My people… my time… we were organized, rigidly built. Everything should work only in one way, just in one way, and everything has to be connected. But in a system like that, if one mechanism spins out of control, then everything crumbles. It's like you on the UK-201, the story you told me. You change something, and everything crumbles."

"Everything? You mean…" Vicki asked, looking at the net of cogs, chains, and wheels.

"Maybe," Sara nodded, getting what she meant. The two women looked at each other and saw in the eyes of the other one the same fear and excitement they felt.

"I'm not sure we should do that," Vicki objected.

"Neither am I, but I don't think we have a choice. We can't pilot the TARDIS, and we don't know what will happen to the Doctor and Steven if we force them away. As for Bret and Chen, they are safe in the guard's quarters, and they have to be alive in one year to meet you. It's all taken care of, Vicki, all set. It is only we who must choose."

"Like on the UK-201," Vicki sighed. Sara nodded and put a hand on her shoulder.

"Back then, you made a choice, and don't lie to me: it wasn't a fair one. You sacrificed a husband and two daughters for the death of your father and the life in the TARDIS. You probably would have preferred the other one, but that was not what fate chose for you. Sometimes, the only choice we have is to go along with things and make the best out of them. It's not all in our hands, and it shouldn't be. After all, without rules, what would be the value of freedom?"
Vicki watched Sara as she talked and couldn't help but smile. Her eyes shone with joy, and a smile hung on her lips. The defeated, sobbing woman she met in the bathroom was gone, just like the stern Space Security Agent who murdered his brother because she had been ordered to. Sara had found her freedom, and Vicki decided to trust her.

"Let's do it, then," she said, extending a hand towards her. Sara took it. She nodded three times as if she was giving a signal. The third time, she and Vicki closed their eyes.

The first thing they felt was the enormous weight of the Clock falling on their shoulders, a burden so grievous to be unbearable. They instinctively tried to flee from it, but held their hands tighter and let it fall upon them, slowly undoing their resolution to fight. After some minutes, the burden began to weigh less and less, as their minds cleared, and a new sensation of freedom and power coursed through their veins. Eventually, they were able to see it in their minds: the Clock, now just a speck of dust in the vastity of space and time, so small that a snap of their fingers would be enough to crush it.
Sara and Vicki opened their eyes. Their choice was made in a heartbeat.

***

Neither Vicki nor Sara could clearly recall what happened after they decided to destroy the Clock. They remembered the sudden silence it felt on the all place, while all the mechanisms ceased working, and the old men, at last free, looked around in doubt and uncertainty. Then, the machine slowly but steadily began falling apart, one cog after another, one heel after another, with a series of loud crashes and bangs which took them by surprise. Unable to keep their concentration, they broke up. They stumbled, their eyes unfocused, and their head spinning. Then, there were two pairs of hands to take them and drag them away, through the chaos and the turmoil, to the safety of the white, quiet room of the TARDIS. Here, they sat down as the Doctor, fully recovered, set the coordinates, and waited for the ship to depart once again with its familiarly whirring sound.

It was only after an hour they managed the concentration necessary to tell their companions what happened. The Doctor and Steven listened intently, interrupting a few times just to be sure they understood clearly. Vicki wasn't sure what to tell about Sara's interactions with Chen and Bret. Still, to her surprise, it was Sara who told everything with no shame or embarrassment.

"Well, my ladies," the Doctor said when they smiled, "I thank you both from the heart for saving our lives. You've been brave and clever, and Vicki, I couldn't be prouder of you. As for you, Sara, you suffered a terrible ordeal. Don't think too harsh of yourself for succumbing to the temptation of changing the past. I can assure you: you are not the first one, and you shall not be the last. The important thing is that you recovered and saved us all with your intuition. Therefore, I think you deserved a place aboard the TARDIS after we solved this business with Chen."

"You mean… travelling with you?"

"Precisely, and I can assure you you'll be very welcome."

"Thank you, Doctor. I… I shall think about it," Sara smiled, as Steven held a hand towards her for complimenting her.

"Well, I suggest we all take some rest now and let the ship work on its own for a while," the Doctor suggested. "Sara, unfortunately, for the moment, the ship has not been able to arrange a room for you, but if it is no trouble for Vicki, maybe you could share…"

"No trouble at all!" Vicki piped. "Come on, Sara, I'll show you," she then said, taking Sara's hand and leading her down to the corridors of the TARDIS while the Doctor chuckled delightedly.

Chapter Text

“How the heck can they eat this thing?” Steven lamented, struggling to hold his fish and chips. “It’s so ... fat! All of this oil!”

“The chips are not much better,” Sara echoed him, as she munched some of them. “Overcooked and too stuffed with sauce. So unhealthy!”

“You can give it to me if you don’t want it,” Vicki said from the other side of the room, her face proudly smeared with oil from her half-eaten portion. “You can have the lamb,” she added, with a knowing smile. The other two looked at that small, black spot on the floor, which was the only result of Sara and Steven trying to cook 20th-century food.

“It’s not so bad,” Steven muttered, as he once again assaulted his fish. Vicki quietly laughed as they all fell silent and proceeded to consume their meal.

That was the tenth day of their unexpectedly extended stay in 1950s London after some unknown force had attacked the TARDIS. They could all remember the red light turning on in the living quarters, the loud noise, the smoke coming out of the console, the Doctor keeping his head in his hands as if he was fighting off a terrible headache. They burst out of the ship the moment the doors opened, Steven and Sara carrying out the barely conscious Doctor. A Jamaican immigrant, Joseph Roberts, had sheltered them for the night in the house he lived in, together with his nephew, Audrey, her husband Michael Newman, and their newborn baby, Josetta. They awoke the following morning to find both the Doctor and the TARDIS gone, with no trace left, as if they vanished into thin air.

On their own, the three of them tried to adjust to the circumstances. Thanks to Joseph and Michael, Steven found work as a discharger at the London docks, and slowly but steadily began accumulating money for the rent of their lodgings. They rented the flat just upside the Newman’s one, and the landowner (who, despite all evidence, was a better man than he appeared to be) agreed to wait for them to have enough money before charging them. Since they needed a cover-up story, Vicki invented (much to Steven and Sara’s annoyance) that the two of them were married, and she was Steven’s little sister. As a result, the landowner gave them a room with a marital bed, which made it very awkward to decide who should sleep there. In the end, Steven had Sara and Vicki would share it, while he would adjust on the one in what technically should have been Vicki’s room.

Due to their previous experience in 18th century London, Steven and Vicki were, in a sense, more used to spend long periods in the past, even though the difference of century was still difficult to cope with. They were thus able to help Sara in the difficult task to adapt to a less developed time than her own, which for her was quite a struggle. Luckily, the recent experience at the Clock made Sara more open to taking advice and less bent on blindly following the rules, so that, in little time, she could comfortably say she managed to somewhat adjust to their predicament. She even formed a strong friendship with Audrey Newman, their neighbour: the two of them often went to the market together, shopping and talking, while Vicki stayed home to watch over Josetta.

“I was thinking today it’s not so bad here ... I mean this time,” Sara said, breaking the silence. “I miss a lot of stuff from my time, but I must say I feel ... free. Which, as you know, it was not something I was used to.”

“I know what you mean,” Steven agreed. “Our time may be more advanced, but it is home, which means rules, expectations, a given identity you must conform to. Here, if you play it right, you may be whatever you want.”

“You talk as if you wanted to stay there for life,” Vicki joked, expecting an answer that never came. She watched their faces twitch for a
moment, and a suspicion hit her. “You don’t want it, do you?”

Steven and Sara glanced at each other, worriedly. Just before Vicki came back their evening from their evening stroll with Josetta, they had been talking about it. After ten days, both grew used to the idea that the Doctor may never come back, and they would live the rest of their life in the past. Surprisingly, they found out that they were so not so troubled by the idea. Sara, after years of following orders in an oppressive military system, actually enjoyed her new-found freedom, and Steven had grown himself quite tired of hopping from one place to another. However, Vicki was quite another story. She may use Josetta as an excuse, but they both knew the real reason she went to the park was to see whether the Doctor was back. She missed the TARDIS and the travels much more than they did. Sara and Steven understood, but at the same time, they thought it would have been better for her to start accepting the chance this may never happen.

“Well,” said Steven, deciding to face the question once and for all, “that would be a little far-fetched, to say I want to, but ... let’s say we may have to.”

“What?” asked Vicki. “But ... the Doctor ...”

“He may not come back,” Sara added, rising from the place she sat and moving on to her side. “We talked about it, and ... well ... we think he won’t’.”

“N-no,” Vicki stuttered, as their eyes began watering. “He can’t do it ... He won’t ...”

“He didn’t” Steven smiled. “If you mean he went off on his own because he didn’t want us around. No, I know him too well for that.”

“We think” Sara continued “that he thought he had better chances against the Daleks and Chen, or against what attacked the ship if he was alone. At last, he would ensure our safety. He took the taranium with him, so they have no reason to come for us.”

“But he never objected against us helping in his fights before,” Vicki insisted. “Why would he now take that decision?”

“I can’t answer this,” Steven sadly admitted. “We may never know. But I can easily see him decide it was too much for us, and wandering off to solve the problem.”

“So ... he is gone because he wanted to protect us?” asked Vicki tentatively. “You ... you are not making this up just to make me feel better about it, aren’t you?”

“Of course not” Sara smiled, putting an arm around her shoulders and holding her tight. “We would never do that to you; you are a too far clever girl to be lied to,” she added. Vicki was about to answer that Bennett managed to trick her quite easily on Dido, but reminded herself that was a long time ago. She remained silent and enjoyed the comfortable warmth of Sara’s embrace and the calm, quiet presence of Steven in front of her.

Steven and Sara, on the other hand, were glad this ended up being not that difficult, even more so because they were not lying. Not even for a moment, Steven contemplated the chance the Doctor just left them there with no reason, and while Sara may be more open to it, still she trusted the judgment of his companion, who had been with the Doctor for a longer time than she was.

“So ...” Vicki asked after a while, regaining her bearings, “what would we do now?”

“Well, I am going to find myself a job,” Sara proudly announced. “They would still need policemen in those times, wouldn’t they?”

“I’m not sure it’s a good idea,” Steven objected. “Women in this time ... well ... let’s say they don’t enjoy the same freedom as in yours.”

“What he wants to say is that they probably won’t accept you because you are a woman,” Vicki bluntly explained.

“Oh, rubbish!” Sara shrugged. “Once I’ll show them what I’m capable of, they would be fools not to take me in the force! I might not use my gun, but I am still a trained and capable SSS Officer!”

“I hope you are right,” Steven sighed. “To me, it is more likely they just threw you in a cell for violating some behaviour code.”

“Just wait and see, Steven Taylor,” Sara replied, pointing the finger at him, “you man of little faith!”

“Oh, for pity’s sake, take a room already,” Vicki laughed, giggling at how Steven and Sara immediately blushed. It had become almost a habit for her to make fun of Steven and Sara bickering as a long-married couple. Sara opened her mouth to tell her, for the one billionth time, they were nothing of the sort, but Steven abruptly changed the subject.

“Vicki, when did the two friends of the Doctor live? Ian and Barbara. It was around this time, wasn’t it?”

“A decade later, actually, in the 1960s. But they were in their thirties when we met them, so I think it’s reasonable to assume they are alive right n ...” And then she realised what she was saying, and her eyes twinkled in excitement. “Yes, they are alive right now! I don’t know their address, but ... oh my gosh, we could go and visit them!”

“Mm, I don’t know,” Steven thought. “Sure, we could, but I strongly suspect the Doctor wouldn’t want this. He always insisted on us respecting the past events and not trying to change them, and they haven’t met us back then on Mechanus, or Dido. But maybe for a quick hello ...”

“Thank you!” Vicki happily exclaimed, jumping off her seat and hugging him. Steven laughed as he hugged her back, only resulting in his chair giving up and throwing both on the floor, where they stayed laughing as Sara shook her head, with a massive smile on her face.

***

“You are joking,” Steven said. Vicki shook her head. “She did it? She ... she went to ...”

“Yes,” Vicki confirmed, before bursting out laughing. “She went into the police station all high and mighty and told the sergeant she wanted to enlist. He dismissed her, of course.”

“As I told her,” Steven punctuated.

“As you told her,” Vicki conceded. “But she insisted. I even tried to persuade her to go off, but she wouldn’t hear of it! So, after a while, he called some men to bring her out.”

“Oh my ...” Steven sighed, putting a hand on his face, as Vicki went on, telling him how Sara started to fight against them, defeating them one after the other.

“It took six men to take her down! Six!” Vicki concluded. “It was amazing!”

“No doubt it was,” Steven amusedly chuckled. “And then what?”

“They put her in jail,” Vicki said. “She is supposed to stay there ‘til evening. They should release her in a few hours.”

“The sooner, the better,” Steven sighed, relieved. “We need her here, now more than ever. Michael and I have to find another job soon enough, or we both will be soon in deep trouble. Not that he seems to care much about it.”

“Yes, I noticed it, too,” Vicki agreed. “Audrey is also worried about him. She told Sara and me that when they were in Jamaica, Michael was the life and soul of every party, a caring husband, a loving father. Now he seems ... distant somehow.”

“No, it’s more than that,” Steven replied. “I can’t put my finger on it, but I watched him at work, and he did anything as he were in a cataleptic state or something of the kind. His eyes were fixed, his movements mechanical ... as a sort of machine! That is not how a man works, certainly not one working to maintain his family, and even if he were fed with them, he at least would talk about it. No, there must be something else.”

“Well, we are not going to find out tonight,” Vicki said, rising from her seat. “We have to make dinner before Sara returns. I guess she will need some soup after the afternoon she had. And you’d better not mock her for it!” she then added, faking an angry warning.

“I promise I will behave,” Steven said, raising his hand in the air as he was swearing. “If she admits I was right, this wasn’t a good idea.”

“Oh, you ...” Vicki began searching for a proper word to follow. “Why do you have to be such a pain in the neck for her?”

“I am not! I am just trying to keep her focused. She is a strong and capable woman with many talents, but she is too rash, too impulsive. I don’t want to repress her, but she could use some guidance.”

“From you?”

“Why not? I am a soldier, like her, I can keep discipline, but I also learned when to follow them, and when not. Besides, I don’t want her to be hurt; she suffered enough.”

“Sounds as if someone liked her very much...” Vicki smiled.

“Oh please, don’t start again! I don’t like her in that sense!”

“Why? Don’t you find her beautiful?”

“Of course, I do!” Steven exclaimed. “She is! And she is clever and resourceful, and strong-willed ... she has everything I always admired and liked in a woman! But I couldn’t... I will not have that relationship with her!”

“And how come?”

“It would be... odd.”

“Odd?”

“Odd. We come from different times, we have different experiences... and she just lost her brother. I am not sure it could work.”

“Let me tell you a secret,” Vicki said, whispering in a conspiratory tone.
“Nobody ever is at the start of a relationship. My father used to tell me that the proposed to my mother without even thinking about it: he just blurted out at some point if she would like to go out with him. He didn’t know what he was doing, nor did she, for that matter. But they liked spending time with each other, and here I am! And as for the differences’ part, Steven, everyone has different experiences, Steven, even folks living in the same period. I don’t think it would be a problem.”
Steven made to reply, but a noise downstairs cut him abruptly. Folks were down in the street, led by Billy Flint, one of Steven’s former co-workers, and were shouting against the Newmans for being immigrants. They heard a door open and the old Joseph coming out to face them, proudly walking with his cane in spite of his injured leg.

“I’ll go down and help him,” Steven said. “Besides, Billy is the one who had me, and Micheal fired. I think it’s time to settle the score,” he added, closing his hand into a fist before storming off the room. Vicki made to follow him, but she saw something else. A little distant from the crowd of racists, another group was gathering: a silent, much bigger one. She looked closely, and even from where she stood, she could see that the people gathering were identical to the ones outside the window: perfect twins, expect they moved slower and more mechanical, just as Michael Newman did. As they closed in, she heard them chanting one sentence, over and over, in a monotone voice.

“We are coming ... We are here ... We are coming ... We are here...”

***

Sara arrived just in time to see Joseph carried away in the ambulance, while Vicki was trying to comfort a worried Audrey. As for Steven, she only caught a glance at him, grasping the rope of a truck and being swept away as a result. It was Vicki to tell her what happened, while Audrey was still calming down both herself and her child. Some people from the docks came to assault the Newmans; Joseph went out to confront them but had a heart attack in doing so. Steven came to his aid but, after a moment, a vast crowd of people, every one of them a perfect double of the assailants and others they knew, came upon them. They charged the assailants, beat them, and then carried them away into the same truck Sara saw Steven held on.

“What about Michael?” Sara asked, noticing the absence of Audrey’s husband.

“He went with them,” Vicki replied. “He was acting as if he were some sort of leader. He kept saying they were here, they were coming.”

“He was not himself,” Audrey said. “He did nothing when those men arrived, and he only came down when the others appeared. I don’t understand: what’s wrong with him?”

“Well, we’ll just have to find out,” said Sara. “I don’t suppose either of you saw which direction the truck went, didn’t you?”

“The docks,” Audrey replied. “The truck belongs to the firm Michael and Steven worked for. It might have taken them there.”

“Then I’ll go there, just let me take my gun,” Sara decided as she moved towards the stairs going up to their flat. But before she got there, Audrey held her back with an arm.

“I’ll go with you.”

“Audrey...”

“No, Sara, I have to do this. For too much time, I pretended nothing was happening. I turned a blind eye on my husband, excusing his behaviour, and all the time, I did not want to see the truth. Something happened to him. I want to know what. I want to help him.”

“Audrey...” Sara tried to get her to reason. “We don’t know what we are going to find. It might be dangerous. We may not come back.”

“Please, don’t treat me as if I was some feeble damsel in need of protection. I left my country, my all life, to come to a new land. I have nothing else in this world, but my husband and my daughter. And I will protect them both with my life if I have to.”

“Well, then I’ll stay here,” Vicki sighed from inside the room. “I’ll keep Josetta company.”

“What?” Sara smirked. “You surprise me. I thought you would insist on coming.”

“I would,” Vicki replied, smiling, “but I don’t think Audrey would like her daughter to be left alone. Besides, those men, those ... doubles may come back. We need someone to stay behind in case, and since Audrey is coming with you...”

“I didn’t say she could.”

“And you think I’d listen?” Audrey asked her. “Sara, please. You know me better than that.”

“All right,” Sara conceded. “Meet me downstairs in five minutes. We already wasted enough time.”

***

Sara and Audrey walked through the deserted London streets towards the dock, in the cold, damp atmosphere of January. The low temperature made them shiver through the fabric of their clothes and caused them to speed their pace so that they could keep themselves warm, giving them another reason (aside from the thought of Michael and Steven trapped, maybe in danger) to walk on.

“Once we are there, let me go first,” Sara told Audrey while preparing to
use the gun.

“What kind of weapon is that?” asked Audrey, confused. “I have never seen anything like that.”

“It has special properties,” said Sara, dismissing her. The last thing she needed was starting to explain they came from the future. “How far are we yet?”

“Not much.”

“Good. If we are lucky, we may find Steven and Michael quickly and get out of here before things get dangerous.”
“You sound like you’re used to situations like that.”
“It was my job once,” Sara said abruptly. “Don’t worry; I’ll try to keep it as quiet and rapid as I can. But if I tell you to run, run. Don’t look back for me, just run. Your daughter needs you, and Vicki too, if I don’t make it.”

“You are indeed a strange woman, Sara Kingdom,” Audrey shook her head. “But an admirable one, at least. I hope Josetta grows to be as brave as you.”

“Well, she has her mother to set the example for her: Audrey Newman, the woman who is jumping into the unknown to keep her family protected and united. You are brave too.”

“Thanks,” Audrey smiled at her. “But you forgot I am doing it because I also love my husband. I would do it just for him, even without Josetta. I see our conversations keep slipping through your mind.”

“Do we have to do this now?” Sara whimpered. For the past two weeks, Audrey had been even more exhausting than Vicki when it came to insisting she and Steven were attracted to each other. And to make things worse, Audrey could argue her position much more thoughtfully and clearly than Vicki ever did, pointing out stuff the other one never noticed and having Sara seriously think about it.

“If it is as dangerous as you claim it to be, then yes, since we could not have another chance.”

“Well, thank you very much, but I’m not going to spend the last minutes of my life talking about my supposed feelings.”

“Why not? You promised you would think about it.”

“Look,” Sara sighed, “I know I did, but... I can’t do it. They never taught me anything of the kind in my training; in fact, they taught me the exact opposite, to hide my feelings, suppress them. Before I met the Doctor and the others, I was convinced I couldn’t feel anything anymore. And yes, I like Steven, and very much for that matter, but... but I am... just... unable to love.”

“Says the woman who is walking straight into danger to protect two people she barely knows.”

“Of course I know you, you are my friends!”

“Which means you can love, because, if you couldn’t, then you’d have no friends.”

At that moment, the docks stood out in the scarce light, forcing them to break the conversation (to Sara’s relief). The Space Security agent came back in the operational mood and raised her gun, before asking Audrey where did she think they would take the prisoners.

“I guess the storehouse of the firm Michael worked for,” Audrey replied.

“There was their logo on the truck.”

“Lead me there and keep back. I want to go first when we arrive.”

They advanced through the series of buildings built near the water, the silence surrounding them broken only by the sound of the river splashing quietly against the wood. They saw nobody, but Sara knew better than to relax. Behind her back, Audrey almost did not breathe, as she looked around for her husband. Finally, they reached their destination: the massive storehouse of the firm, stout and imposing in the darkness, a giant mass of wood and bricks pending ominously above their heads. Its door was open, but no sound came from inside.

“You can turn back if you want,” Sara said. “I will bring your husband back along with Steven.”

“No way,” Audrey insisted, shaken but firm. “I am coming in.”

“Then let’s go,” Sara said, as she took a step further, only for a hand to come out of the darkness on their side and pull her back. She immediately spun around, freeing herself from the grip, and pointed the gun to the unknown assailant – and see a very familiar face peering at her.

“Doctor!” she exclaimed. “How...”

“Sssh, my girl! Not here!” he frantically whispered. “I haven’t got much time; we have to go away before they realise I am gone.”

“But my husband...” Audrey insisted.

“We can’t do anything for him at the moment, miss Newman, not until I explain to you what is going on. But be sure he is safe, and we can save him.”

“What about Steven?” Sara asked.

“They trapped him, but he is fine. They need him to be. And now, no more questions! Away from here!”

***

Once they were out of reach, the Doctor told Audrey and Sara what they were dealing with: parasite beings with minor psychic abilities, but not a real conscience. Michael Newman had picked one out of the sea as he travelled to England, and they exploited his latent psychic gifts to come to life and copy him. They kept him alive and well (though unconscious) inside some ball made of red gelatine, with their central collective brain placed on his chest so they could continue using his energy; meanwhile, his double went outside and pretended to be him. However, the power they could take from Michael was limited, and when they heard the TARDIS pass, they immediately tried to reach it and take it down, to use it as a higher source of energy. The TARDIS’ defence system activated and saved his occupants, at the cost of sending the Doctor into a coma and crash-landing in this time. The changelings then took the TARDIS and the Doctor and proved to use it as their new energy source, making copies of every single person Michael or his double come in contact with him.

“They took me as well,” the Doctor said, “but were unable to copy me since I am not human. And they made the mistake of thinking I was out of action, whereas my mind was at work.”

Using his psychic abilities, the Doctor shielded his presence and studied their weaknesses, waiting for the best time to wake up. Then, Steven arrived, and before being captured and copied himself, managed to release the Doctor from his prison. Then, the Time Lord ran away and crossed paths with Sara and Audrey, just in time to devise a strategy to defeat them. And so, while Audrey hurriedly returned home to warn Vicki that duplicates of herself and Steven were coming to take Josetta, Sara and the Doctor walked into the storehouse, released Michael from his gelatinous prison and took the brain-cells off his chest. Then, while he distracted the others duplicates, Sara ran out of the dock and threw the brain into the water, shooting at it for good measure. As soon as it was destroyed, every prisoner was released, including Steven; they all had trouble remembering what happened to them, but they were fine nonetheless.

All this went through Sara’s mind as she waited for the Doctor and Vicki to come back from the hospital where Joseph Roberts recovered from his heart attack. Steven also stayed behind, since, due to being copied by the changelings, unfortunately, he couldn’t remember a thing it happened during their stay in London. The TARDIS shone in the park in the light of the winter sun, and she was breathing at full lungs the Earth air before coming back into the ship and leaving it once again. She already knew she would miss this, the feeling of a new home, a new life, away from the war and the Daleks. That is also why she was gathering the courage to do the bravest thing of her entire life.

“All right, we are set to go,” Steven said, coming out of the ship, gallant and enthusiastic as ever. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” she nodded. “Just saying goodbye to all of this.”

“You could stay if you want to,” Steven proposed. “The Doctor would let you; he has done it before.”

“And what would you do without me?” Sara replied with a joking smile.

“Oh, we’ll manage,” Steven replied, also joking. “But we’ll surely miss you.”

“I’d miss you too,” Sara admitted, blushing. “And I don’t think this time would offer me what I want. I couldn’t even do my job properly here! No, if I ever leave, it’ll be someplace I feel as accepted and useful as I am among you, somewhere which I could think of as home.”

“I understand. Come on, let’s get inside.”

“No, Steven, wait, there is... something I want to do before we leave,” Sara stopped him. “Something only you can help me with.”

“Sure, what is it?”

“I need you to stay absolutely still until I tell you. Don’t say anything, don’t flinch, just... let me do it.”

“Ookay...”

Then, it all happened in a flash. Quick as the flight of a spaceship, Sara’s lips touched Steven’s in an awkward but sincere kiss. Surprised as he was, he barely had time to register what happened, and only after their mouths parted, he was able to comprehend what has passed.

“Y-you...”

“I like you, Steven Taylor. I don’t know if I love you, but... well... Oh God, this is embarrassing... Look, Vicki has been teasing us about it for the past two weeks, even if you don’t remember it, and I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction to see me kissing you, but I still wanted to do it because I’d like us to be... no, to try being...”

Two strong arms grabbed her by the wrist, cutting off her speech, and before she could understand what happened, Sara found herself pinned down against the TARDIS’ door while Steven passionately kissed her again. Her stomach in a turmoil and her head in a dizzy, Sara replied to the kiss, parting her lips to let their tongues intertwine, while her hands held him tight. Time disappeared as the two lovers finally enjoyed the warmth and comfort of each other’s presence, and only when they heard someone enthusiastically clapping they parted.

“About time!” the Doctor exclaimed, walking towards them with a smile on his old face. “Vicki and I were just talking about when you two would finally acknowledge your feelings.”

“Now he has to let me drive, at least once!” Vicki added, hugging first Steven and then Sara, giggling.

“Now, now, child, don’t rush it. I will decide when to keep my promise. And as for you two, I couldn’t be happier. I wish you all the luck in the world, and... I hope you will last as long as you can, possibly forever.”

“Thank you,” Sara said, before deciding in an impulse to kiss him on the cheek. The Doctor chuckled happy as he received it, while Vicki laughed and Steven just stayed there, unsure what to say or do.

“Oh, by the way,” the Doctor added as he went for the door. “In the TARDIS quarters, there is a very comfortable room with a matrimonial bed. Chesterton and Barbara used to go there when they...”

“DOCTOR!” his three companions shouted all together, as the doors closed.