There were a million lights floating around in the darkness surrounding him, and he could name any one of them. Some names were mere numbers, representing coordinates, others had real names spoken in strange languages that were either ancient or new. He would like to float among them jus a little while longer, as a sense of peace descended upon him like a warm, comfortable blanket. Just existing, without purpose, being one with these dancing lights in the sky.
But ultimately his body's senses betrayed him. Bitter cold seeped into his comforting world, making his muscles shiver and his teeth chatter. The wounds and sores that ran all over his skin burned open like malignant flowers, ripping him out of the protective cocoon of this blissful insentient state, and casting him back into the fires of an unforgiving hell. Being dragged towards the surface of a consciousness that he dreaded, the prisoner clung onto his kind illuminated sky with desperation, but as he tried to capture them and close his hand around one of these bright stars, it burned like a lump of hot coal from a stove that incinerated his flesh.
The prisoner opened his eyes, and he was brought back into the world of total darkness.
He sat huddled against the muddy stones in the furthest corner of the small vault. His hands were bound behind his back. Heavy iron shackles around his ankles and neck fettered him to an iron ring that was bolted in the wall, chaining him up like a feral dog. They didn't have bothered to give him any clothes, and he was shivering wretchedly of the cold that seeped from the damp stones into his naked body.
The Doctor slowly walked up to him, being very careful not to startle the prisoner. He realized with a pang of guilt that he looked weaker, and more pitiful than before. Crouching down beside him, he gently put a hand on his shoulder. The prisoner whimpered timidly in response to his touch.
"I'm sorry that I didn't come back earlier." The Doctor whispered. He noticed that most of the wounds that had covered the prisoner's skin had finally healed, but unfortunately, the ones that remained had become severely infected. They looked ripe with puss and smelled faul.
The prisoner did not turn his face to the man with the familiar voice. He could barely hear him, as the sound of drums that plagued him every waking moment of his long life had returned and grew stronger and stronger, till it gushed through his blood like a serpent's toxin. It wiped away every trace of memory of the lights that he had cherished in his dreams, and flooded his open and exposed mind with gruesome images of death and suffering. In front of his eyes, a young boy was cut open alive, his spinal cord and brain removed to be fitted inside an electronic coffin, the wires of the sphere-shaped vehicle slithering around tentatively in search to connect and become one with the child's soul. Above his head, a crimson sky split open to cast down hordes of murderous machines that were eager to shred the flesh off human bones.
The Doctor turned him around to face him. The prisoner did not resisted. His body was weak and limp as a rag doll.
The presence of the Doctor became weaker as the TARDIS struggled to feed the teleportation system. The Timelord knew that there was not much time granted between them.
"Master?" He said, in vain hope that it would stir an echo in his memories. There came no response. There was no alertness in the eyes, just that horrified wide-eyed look as if he was the reluctant spectator of a horrific play that was only performed inside his head.
The Doctor took him in his arms and shook him gently.
"Master. Look at me, look at my face."
The drumming inside his ears was still skull-shattering, but the prisoner could see past the piles of disemboweled and dismembered corpses and mad rotating floating vehicles with murderous sharp blades, the face of the man who tried to get in contact with him. It was a face that was new bur familiar at the same time, and he remembered that the man was called the Doctor. There were memories connected to this Doctor person, but as he searched for more information, doors were slammed shut coarsely as if his mind tried to stop him from recollecting.
The Doctor could finally see a trace of consciousness returning to the Master's face.
"Okay, now listen. I'm going to get you out of here! The problem is that I can't do this alone. I need your help. Do you understand me?"
There was that Doctor man again. His mouth was moving, but his words were completely lost in the drumming. Why did he know this man? It worried the prisoner that he could not remember anything about him. A small voice kept reminding him that it was trivial to find out. There was something he knew about this man, a knowledge that would cut through his heart with a blunted knife if he found out, but was also too important to simply forget. Still he was glad that the Doctor was here. He felt warm, and safe, and could ignore the dead humans and the murderous machines that he could see peripherally lingering in the corners of the small cell.
"Please understand….you have to…….!" The message of the Doctor suddenly came to him in tattered sentences, fragments that happened to escape the ferocity of the drums. It was hard to make anything out of that gibberish, still, it seemed important, so he tried hard to listen.
"…..gateway between dimensions……."
"The sentinels are feeding on fear…remember this."
"…..black holes moving across the galaxy, I need to find out where they are going to breach through…."
"….Don't be afraid, they feed on fear!
"I'll help you….Please hold on for a little longer."
The theleportation had finally sucked the last reserve out the TARDIS and the process that allowed the physical copy of the Timelord to exist in the prisoner's dimension was aborted. Just before he left, the Doctor gently placed him back on the dungeon floor, caressing his damp face with the back of his hand. The last message of the Timelord cut through the malignant drums like a beam of light that penetrated through the fog at a stormy sea.
"I will get out of this place. I promise."
The Doctor faded away till there was nothing left but darkness and cold. He did not know why, but a great sadness washed over him, and a sheen of tears clouded his eyes. For a long time, he lay still on the floor, staring at the vaulted ceiling of his cell. He searched for the Doctor amongst the lights in the sky till the drums returned at full force. It mercilessly wiped his fragile hope from his mind, only to replace it with thoughts that were as black as the darkness that engulfed him.
The Doctor's awareness arrived at the TARDIS, merging with the physical form that had been standing in the beam of deadly gamma radiation that was emitted by the teleportation device. It had been no longer than a few minutes, but it was long enough to wreck havoc on the Timelord's biology. As soon as the merge was completed, Jack pulled down to handle to shut down the procedure. The beam disappeared, and the Doctor collapsed on the floor with his hands clutching his head.
"Are you alright?" Jack asked worriedly. He helped the Doctor up and brought him over to the chair next to the control desk.
"Everything is fine." The Doctor answered, sitting down while rubbing his eyes and temples.
"You're sure? Looked like a hell of a bumpy ride."
"I'm fine." The doctor took a deep breath and draw his eyes wide open. "Nothing wrong with me." He said, lying through his teeth. He felt the molecules inside his brain shift in turmoil as the mind of his copy collided with his own. For a short while, it was as if two Doctors existed inside the same physical body, and the shear overload in neuron energy that was wasted in storing two copies of his recollections was giving him a gigantic headache.
"Did you see him?" Jack asked.
The Doctor closed his eyes and searched in his new memories for his short encounter with the other Timelord. His brain cells were already dismissing the extra copies that the teleportation had created, and there was some room for reasoning.
"I think I saw him in the same cell, just like the last time." The Doctor muttered, then added in a repentant voice. "He looked terrible."
"I don't think we should feel any pity for that bastard." Jack said rather dismissively. "He is still alive, right? That's the most important part."
The headache was quickly subsiding, and the Timelord felt just capable enough to look rather disapprovingly at the captain.
"He is still alive, barely that is. The sentinels are feeding on his life force like leeches on a pulsing vein. It will not be long before they have squeezed the last drop of energy out of him and decide that it is time to sacrifice their prisoner."
"How much time do we have left, you reckon?"
"A couple of days, no more." The Doctor said in a flat voice. "I tried to tell him what to do but he seemed too far gone. I don't think he got the message."
"God!" Jack yelled out, grinning cynically. "This must be some kind of sick cosmic joke! You have saved the earth from the Master but now that asshole still finds a way to destroy us all, even after he snuffed it."
"We have to prepare for the final theleportation." The Doctor said, ignoring the captain's comments. "I will rewrite the energy distribution modules of the TARDIS engine to charge up the reserves. You should monitor the coordinates of the last black hole that we used to enter the gap. If it shifts and we lose sight of it, we will never be able to track it down in time. So keep an eye on it."
"You are going to face those sentinels, aren't you?" Jack said, finally understanding where this was going. "Don't you know that's bloody dangerous! If that bastard doesn't have a clue what he has to do to save his own ass, those aliens are going to kill you. Or worse, they are going to use you as their next energy supply to fry another universe out of the sky."
"Look, I know what I'm doing!" The doctor snapped, working manically on the distribution program behind the console monitor. "Now you either start doing the coordinates or you don't, but I'm going anyway. With or without your help."
"It's suicide." Jack finally said, after a short silence.
"Could be." The Doctor mumbled, without looking up at him.
"There must be another way."
"There is no other way." The Doctor answered in a stern voice.
"Look, that bastard isn't just worth it. You shouldn't risk your life trying to save him!"
"Listen to me captain, there is no other way to save our universe, unless we save him from the sentinals." The Doctor stated, staring angrily at him. "And that's the truth. Now if you excuse me, I've got work to do. If you're not going to help, please leave. You still have that space and time hopping belt on you don't you?"
There was long and painful silence. Jack felt his heart jump in his throat as he stared at the Doctor and saw the harshness appearing on his features. The son of a bitch meant it.
"I think I left it at the Torchwood institute." He finally said, feeling defeated. He had such admiration for the Doctor. He stood for everything that he believed. Why is this great and wonderful man defending that monster?
I think I rather stay and help you out with the coordinates."
"The tracking program is already rebooted on the other console." The Doctor said flatly, returning his focus to the screen in front of him. "You know what you have to do."
Jack went over to the second control desk. He was just starting to go over the coordinates when the Doctor suddenly looked over the top of his monitor and addressed him.
"Oh, and captain, by the way, I have to warn you. If you are planning to hurt that bastard in anyway after we have saved him from the sentinels, you are going to regret that you didn't come onboard of the TARDIS with your space hopper."
Jack smiled sadly.
"Alright, I promise I won't drag him into Torchwood and let my crew vivisect him to put the most interesting part in pickle jars, but you have to promise something to me too in return."
"What is it?" Asked the Timelord, raising his eyebrows.
The captain's grin grew wide.
"Don't trust the bastard. Because believe me Doc, your lady is a homicidal tramp."
It was only two weeks after the day in which the year that never happened was erased from the people's mind and from history itself. Jack had returned to his team. He had kept Lucy Saxon in custody in secret till the one-time first lady finally emerged from her catatonic state. After she had regained her consciousness, he had tried many times to talk to her about what had happened, but she seemed to have banished Harold Saxon from her mind completely. The test results from the medical examinations showed no abnormalities to her brains or neurological functions, so she was finally released and reunited with her family. It could be that her amnesia was forged, but was performed so convincingly well that it ultimately even became true not only for those she tried to deceive, but also for herself. Jack actually envied her for this. If only the rest of those on board of the Valiant could be that lucky.
It was late in the evening, and the captain had just closed down the Tochwood lab. He felt a bit peckish, so he decided to get some fish and chips for supper. He walked around the corner of the street with his favorite shop and found the Doctor, leaning casually against the TARDIS with one hand in is pockets.
"Doctor?" He asked, being pleasantly surprised. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to find you." He held up a greasy white plastic bag with take-away in he air and smiled. "I added a side order of mushy peas, never hurts to eat more greens."
They sat down and ate inside the TARDIS. Jack was puzzled at first when the Timelord explained that he needed his help to find the Master.
"Ehm, sorry Doc. But the Master is dead." He explained cautiously. Must be some kind of post-traumatic symptom thing, he figured, just like what that Lucy girl suffered from. "Lucy Saxon shot him down like dog, remember?
Maybe he shouldn't have compared the sick bastard with a dog, the Doctor looked a tad upset.
"Of course I remember." The doctor said, frowning. "I was there and I couldn't stop her. It happened so quickly."
The captain was relieved. At least the Timelord was not denying the Master was pushing up the daisies. "It wasn't your fault." Jack said sympathetically. He meant that. Harold Saxon was such a complete asshole that anyone onboard of the Valiant would have stood in line to do target practice on him. The Doctor had no chance in keeping him safe. As soon as he had turned his back on the crew, the Master would have been done for anyway.
"I could have helped him. He wasn't always like that."
"Sure." Jack muttered, and stuffed another greasy chip in his mouth. "You told us that it was that time-vortex right? It made him go bonkers when he was a kid."
"The effects of the time-vortex are completely unpredictable. A weak and selfish person can stare into it and become the bravest protector of the universe. A good and strong person can be exposed to it and lose all respect and empathy toward others and become consumed by hate. There isn't a reason for what happened to us both."
The Doctor paused for a moment, and stared silently at the green glow of the core of the TARDIS.
"Oh, don't tell me that you could have turned out anything like the Master!" Jack said immediately, and choked half on a piece of fried cod. "I mean come on Doc, you could never do what that monster has done! You're not that kind of man."
The Doctor shrugged. "Perhaps not. But perhaps it was just a stroke of luck, a good turn of the wheel, that kept me from becoming the monster that he has become."
Jack thought about it for a moment. If indeed the time-vortex picked a Timelord's fate at random, it would make the Master a victim of circumstance, and perhaps entitled him to just as much sympathy as the captain could conjure for any other living being. However, it was almost impossible for Jack to forgive the evil that the Master had done. He simply could not forget all the destruction and death that was the doing of one madman, that bloodthirsty tyrant who was so unforgiving that he did not even spare the last of his own kind.
"There nothing you can do for him anymore. The Master is gone. You have to move on." And forget about that bastard, Jack thought, like I'm trying to do.
"Well, yes, if he is truly gone. I should of course. But he isn't. He didn't regenerate, you see. He could have. He should have, but he didn't."
"What do you mean by that Doctor?" The captain asked, keeping his voice as calm as possible while a cold shiver ran up his spine.
"I thought you would probably know this, you being the ringleader of that Torchwood gang and all. We Timelords have the ability to regenerate, it grants us the gift to live on for a longer lifespan than any human possibly could, but we are not immortal of course. The number of regenerations is limited."
"I had a good idea that you guys can do that. Your chopped off hand and that new face of yours kind of gave it away. But I didn't know that there were limitations. How many times can you actually regenerate?" Jack asked, curiously.
"13 times in total. After that my number is finally up, just as it should be. Everything in the universe should have a beginning and an end. No one should live forever." He gave the Jack a long hard look, making the captain feel uneasy before he continued.
"Everybody was obliged to use all of their incarnations. Most of us lived through our lives contentedly, watching the universe evolve while time passed by like peaceful silver streams. And some of us had to live through times of war and hardship, and were condemned to witness death and destruction. However, none of us would ever willingly give up the lives that we had left."
The Doctor looked up at the captain, staring directly into his eyes.
"It was not always because we were afraid of death."
"I believe you."
The Doctor smiled sadly, and drew circles with his plastic spoon in his serving of mushy peas. Jack didn't know, but he was writing down a certain Timelord's name in the ancient script of the Timelords. It occurred to him that there hadn't been anyone else who could read this in more than a hundred year until only very recently. And now, once again, he was the only one left who could decipher this.
"Anyway, the reason why no reincarnation should be wasted is that every regeneration costs a huge amount of energy, enough to lit up a million suns. And all this energy is stored in every cell of a Timelord. Come to think of it, we are a bit like walking neutron-bombs, only deadlier if we happen to fall into the wrong hands."
"Okay, so you're practically saying that the energy should be used up before a Timelord dies, otherwise…" Jack encouraged.
"The energy is dispatched into the atmosphere, and slowly leaks out into the space." The Doctor explained.
"That doesn't sound too bad." Jack said, somewhat relieved, although he was still puzzled. "It's not going to worsen the greenhouse effect I hope."
"It's Timelord energy, not CO2 emission! Geez!" The Doctor rolled his eyes in dismay, than rambled on. "The type of energy we are talking about is has no effect on any law of physics nor is effected by chemistry. The only variables that it could affect, are space and time."
"That sounds logical." Jack muttered, silently hoping that the Doctor would soon say something that would silence the growing sense of worry that gnawed at the back of his mind.
But that hope perished quickly enough.
"And that is exactly why it is so dangerous!" The Doctor exclaimed, waving his hand enthusiastically and sweeping the rest of his unfinished dinner from the table. "If that energy is diluted in the vastness of space it becomes useless. But before that can happens, a cloud of highly volatile energy will form that is easily picked up by alien scavengers. If we are lucky, these scavengers will consume it in one form or another, directly removing it out of the way. But if we are unlucky, a more sophisticated race will find it first, and use this dangerous power for the destruction of the universe!"
"Okay, stop there for a moment." Jack interrupted. "You are talking way too fast. Slow down Doc. First, of all, please tell me that this didn't happen to the Master." Just the sort of thing that would happen of course, he figured, to a guy like that. He was stinking no good while he was alive, and now that he was dead, he was still polluting the universe with whatever sort of energy fart that was left of him.
"All right, sorry. Got carried away again. Anyway, I will try to slow down a bit." The Doctor took a deep breath. "I'm sorry but that is exactly what happened to him."
Jack fell silent for a while. The gnawing sense of unease had grown into a medium sized panic.
"And you probably want to know which of the energy hunters picked up his remains. I hate to tell you this, but it's not the harmless scavengers."
"God." Jack muttered, shaking his head. "I really hate that guy."
"The race that took him is known to my people as the sentinals." The Doctor continued. He was being extra careful not to start rambling again, and had decided that the best way to do that was to actually take breaths between the sentences like normal people did. "They are an ancient and powerful race that have existed even long before the Timelords were around. They are considered the grim reapers of our race. Everyone, even the Timelord elders, were afraid of them."
"This doesn't sound good. What do these sentinals do with the energy that they gather from the Timelords?"
"No-one knows for sure. But when I was young, the elders of the clan used to tell us stories about them. To us, they were almost like mythical beings, and they were used as boogymen to warn the younglings for the dangers that lurked in the dark corners of the universe." The Doctor put his feet on the console and leaned back, musing. "The sentinals cannot kill or harm anyone who is still alive, but when a Timelord has spent his last incarnation, and breathed out his last breath, the sentinals will come and take whatever remains of his energy….Wait, that's not the right word."
The Doctor paused for a moment as he searched through his elaborate vocabulary. It was not always easy for him to translate something that perhaps did not exist except for the Timelords into something-else that the humans would understand.
"I guess the closest word that can describe what I mean is spirit, or ghost. Wait, that's not right either. Anyway, the sentinals will take what remains of the Timelord's ehm…non-physical existence that still clings onto the molecules of the body. In order to prevent that from happening, the deceased Timelords were always burned on a funeral pyre. By doing so, the… non-corporal consciousness is released from the physical matter, the traces of it enter space and will finally cease to exist as a sole entity, becoming one with the universe."
"You burned the remains of the Master." Jack said, perhaps with a bit too much enthusiasm. "That should mean that there is nothing left to scavenge and that we are safe, right?"
The Doctor shook his head. "The problem is that the Master died young. He only regenerated once. There was enough energy left in him to form an energy cloud that takes days to disappear. I had hoped that the old stories from my childhood have lost their meaning and that the sentinals have become extinct. But they are still there, waiting for one of us to die. They have finally tracked the Master down." To Jack's dismay, the Doctor's was slipping into a repentant mood again. "To the sentinals, the dead Master is like a big Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. They don't care that their dinner is slightly burned and that it has a smoky flavor to it. They are used to feeding on scraps or go to bed hungry."
"So now they are here to eat the Master's emh, soul?" Jack asked, picking out any word that fitted the description of the Doctor and realizing that this conversation was becoming extremely strange.
The Doctor blinked his eyes in surprise in response to the captain's interesting choice of words. "Ehm, not exactly. The sentinals feed on something else. You see, they are not from our dimension. They are in fact, not from any dimension. They exist between realities. If our universe is a thin wall that runs parallel with other universes, other thin walls so to speak, the sentinals are trapped in the gap between them. They feed on the very fabric of the universe, swallowing up stars and planets as if they are little raisons in their steaming bowl of porridge. These creatures are the great destructors of time and space."
Jack's head spun with the information that the Doctor was feeding him. It didn't help that he had once again started to talk faster and faster till he was machine-gunning the facts in his face.
"But how do the sentinals get here if they are trapped between dimensions?" Jack reasoned.
"Oh, don't you see?" The Doctor rambled on like an overexcited kid on a sugar-rush. "That's why they are hunting down Timelord energy! They need us to punch holes into the dimensions. Think of them as cosmic caterpillars. They need a corner to nibble on. The universe does not have them, so they have to make their own. Even for a small and relatively unstable breach, a massive amount of astron energy is needed. It is an amount that only a dead Timelord can supply. The sentinals survive from one hole at the time, collecting the energy and storing it to breach through another time and place when and where another Timelord meets his untimely demise. So they feed and nibble a corner of the universe away, and are forced to retreat again when the universe heals itself and the hole is closed. On and on that circle goes. It has probably worked out for them like this for billions of years. Only now, the scavenging for their special fuel has become very meager indeed. There are only two Timelords left for them to use as a potential energy source."
"So, the sentinals are going to do what? Burn up the Master to punch a hole in our universe to track you down when you die?"
The Doctor shook his head. "No, it's not that simple anymore. They know that there are none of us left after they have used both of us up. The end is near. They have to take desperate measures or they will be trapped in the gap between the dimensions and starve to death."
"So what do you expect that they will do?" Jack asked, nervously.
"Well,"The Doctor mused. "if I was one of them, I would use the Master to punch a hole the size of the Milky way into whatever universe is the closest around, and ours is because they just came here to pick up the Master, and evacuate into greener pastures." The Doctor said, picking up the last chips. "God, these aren't really good. Far too salty to my taste. Is this really your favorite Fish and Chips shop? Aren't there any better ones around?"
Jack decided to ignore the irrelevant chip question. "You mean they are going to invade us?"
"Yeah, probably." The Doctor answered, licking his lips and looking pensively. "Of course they are a stubborn race, very much afraid of change, but if you are faced with starvation and extinction, you don't really have another choice. The problem is that they probably won't stop eating till the entire universe is gone."
Although he had lived through a lot, Jack couldn't imagine how the end of the universe would look like. However the thought must have terrified him as he felt the fish and chip dinner sitting in his stomach like a heavy stone.
"How much time do we have?" He asked quietly.
The Doctor took a look at his watch.
"If we start immediately, one week and 2 and a half hours. May I suggest that we make good use of the time that remains."
Captain Jack took a deep breath and straightened his back.
"Tell me, how can I help?"