Gwen shivered and hunched down further into the tub as the sound of a passing car reached her ears. She waited, breath caught in her throat, for the sound of the explosion, for the screaming to start.
It didn't come. It was the sixth car to pass that morning, and still the Toclofane hadn't come.
"I'm not dead Gwen. I never was dead, I promise…"
Maybe it really was over? But, no, that couldn't be. If it was over, that would mean having to rebuild, having to create some sort of long term existence. And Rhys was dead.
"Gwen, honey, please, open the door…"
Rhys was the one who was supposed to be with her through it all. She loved Jack as well, but Jack was full of adventure and excitement and all manner of things that would burn her alive if she held on to him too tightly. Rhys she could hold. Rhys was the one she came home to. Rhys was the one who reminded her of the people outside of Torchwood, of the people they were protecting. Rhys was the person who kept her alive and from slipping into the great black abyss that surrounded her job.
"Gwen, at least talk to me. You don't have come out, just let me know-"
"It's not supposed to be you, Rhys. You're supposed to be safe. You're not supposed to die, not like you did."
"I'm not dead, Gwen. It never happened."
Oh God, it sounded like him. It had looked like him too. But it couldn't be him, not when she'd last seen him cut to pieces in the middle of the street…
"I didn't die, Gwen. I'm still here, I didn't die," Rhys assured her.
She wanted to believe it. But every time she thought about him she could feel his blood on her hands and smell the ash in the air and feel the gravel digging into her knees and hear the sound of giggling from overhead and taste death in her mouth.
"Oh thank God you're here. She still won't come out."
It had never really left her, that taste. It didn't help that it was a distinctive taste as well: something like iron and charcoal, with a citrusy sort of tang around the edges. She'd tried, too. Gargled every bit of mouthwash she could get her hands on, drank coffee after coffee while it was scalding hot until Ianto refused to make her any more. Then she and Owen had gotten spectacularly drunk and loud and ended up vomiting all over the hub. And still, she could taste death coating her tongue.
"Gwen. Gwen, it's Martha. Martha Jones."
She knew that name. She'd been wanted by the Prime Minister- by the Master. He'd been angry at her escape, desperate for her return.
"He's afraid of her," Ianto had observed. "I wonder why?"
"Gwen, I want you to think- can you remember the date? Do you know what day it is?"
What kind of question was that? Of course she had no idea what day it was, the world had ended. What did arbitrary things like dates mean anymore?
15 August, 2009, her mind supplied easily, however.
Except it wasn't, was it? It was sometime in April, 2008. Wasn't it?
April 2008. They'd gotten a dodgy order to head for the Himalayas. They made it look like they went; the locked down the Hub and watched as the world burned. Or had they just seen the President die, and Jack disappear into nothingness again?
Gwen opened the door, nearly walking into Rhys. Rhys, who had died. Rhys, who had proposed to her while lying down, had married her, had argued with her for her future and her soul.
"How is that possible?" she asked. "I remember but-"
It all swirled around in her head, confusing and overwhelming and she had to lean against the door jamb for a moment until the world stopped spinning.
"How can that-" she began, but stopped. She had memories in her head, but they never happened. Except they did. Or maybe they were going to. No, it was somewhere between the two…
"I'm remembering the timeline we're merging with," she stated, more to herself than anything else.
It came as a surprise when Martha, standing unnoticed behind Rhys, answered her with a simple "Yes."
"Oh God," she moaned. Her eyes closed, she took a deep shuddering breath and suddenly Rhys was there, holding her close. She shifted her weight so that she was leaning on him. "Oh, God…"
"We're going to stop this," Martha promised. "We're going to set things right."
Mickey was in the Hub when Martha returned. He looked up from the computer, bleary-eyed and rumpled. "How's Gwen?" he asked.
"She's remembering," Martha answered simply. "She forgot this timeline temporarily; it was overwhelmed, I think, with the power of the newer memories. I've recommended she take a few hours to get her head around them before she returns to the Hub- I'll check her over once she gets here."
"But she remembers both realities?" Mickey asked.
"Yes," Martha replied.
"Okay, good, that fits," Mickey muttered, typing out some more notes on the computer. "I think I know what's happening now- Tosh is in and out, she helps- but how the hell we're going to fix this is a whole other animal."
"What is happening?" Martha asked. "There's just so much about this situation that doesn't add up…"
"Well, first off, you have to think about that year as a separate, physical, movable object. It's its own entity," he began.
Martha's eyebrows shot up into her hairline. "Okay," she drawled in a tone that suggested that what he was saying made no sense whatsoever.
"No, really. From what Tosh has told me, quantum locking an event requires cutting a sequence events out of the time-space continuum, so that no amount of vortex manipulation can allow anything to get in or out of it. And then she launched into this long winded explanation of how people could get into and out of a series of events, which we're going to skip over because I still don't understand the half of it and it doesn't really matter in this situation anyway."
Martha smiled. "You're not exactly increasing my confidence here."
"Hey, you try learning every bit of temporal mechanics in three months and see how you do then," Mickey protested. "It took me years to understand the physics behind reality jumping, and that was, believe it or not, a lot more straight-forward than time travel. And time travel is much, much less complicated than quantum locks."
"Well, you know how I said to imagine the other timeline as a physical entity? Well, it's not the physical part of the timeline you need to worry about, so much as the temporal part. It all took place in the same physical coordinates we live on now, essentially, so the shape of the timeline is defined by the passage of time within it. So May's in one corner, August is in another, Octobers in between the two and the annual Christmas invasion is on another end entirely…"
"I'll take your word for it," Martha said, nodding doubtfully.
"So, anyway, when something gets quantum locked, it becomes a sort of self contained reality, floating in the time stream. Since it isn't anchored anywhere, there's no way to move outside of it into other realities. But somehow, this time, a bit of that reality got caught on this one, which is why the dates aren't matching up…"
"The dates aren't matching up?" Martha asked.
"Yeah. For Tosh and Owen it's still June of 2008, and they're a few hours out of synch with each other. When other things crop up, we won't be able to predict when in the timeline they'll come from. For some people, it'll be day one. For others, day three hundred and sixty-five."
"I probably should have insisted Gwen tell me what day she thought it was, then," Martha sighed, wincing.
"I won't say no to any information you have, but at this point I have no idea how I'd use it," Mickey grumbled. "I mean, obviously I'm looking for a way to push that reality out of this one, but I have no idea how I'd manage it."
"Well, I don't either, if that helps," she comforted him.
He laughed. "Honestly? I wouldn't mind if you did. Not exactly a time for ego, is it now?"
"No, I suppose not," Martha laughed. "Speaking of ego, do you know where Jack went to? I want to check in with him before I try to force Donna into eating some lunch."
Mickey shrugged. "He and Ianto disappeared into his office some time after dawn, and I haven't seen either of them since, so…"
As though to refute his words, the door to Jack's office opened, and Ianto walked out, self-consciously running his hand over his head in an attempt to rid himself of bed head. Catching sight of the two of him, he smiled in greeting. "Afternoon. I'm ordering lunch- how would you like your pizza?"
Donna's stomach growled. She ignored it, and focused on her memories one last time.
The entire life of Donna Noble? Check.
Every last precious piece of Gallifrey? Check and double check. It was selfish, when there were more useful things she could have been using the memory space for, but when memory was the only thing left…
The Master. All of the battles he and the Doctor had fought together, both against each other and side by side? Check. Not pleasant memories, by any stretch of the imagination, but necessary.
How to operate the sonic screwdriver? Check and bloody hell, did that thing ever come with a lot of settings.
Every last bit of temporal and reality jumping mechanics and engineering? Just barely check, but manageable.
End of list. And with some space left over as well.
There had been a lot she was missing, almost all of it good memories or useful information, and many times a combination of both. But she was no longer fragmented- no longer on the verge of insanity or death. Always a cheerful place to be, well away from insanity and death, that is.
And now, Dr. Donna was ready to face the world. Well, if she could simply force her headache away and get her eyes to open, she would be, at least.
"Martha," Jack greeted her as she walked in the room. He didn't bother looking away from the loading screen.
"Did you let Ianto get any sleep this morning?" she asked bluntly. Ow. Okay, so she wanted his attention for this.
"Yes. He got a solid five hours, and was very displeased at me for letting him sleep that long," Jack replied, putting enough bite in his tone to let her know that he found the question insulting. Although, when he thought about it, he was flattered that she thought he had that sort of stamina.
Martha had the grace to look abashed, but there was a bit of steel in her eyes that let him know that she wasn't exactly sorry. "I'm just checking in. And speaking of which, I'm considering putting Donna on feeding tubes."
"What?" he asked, all attention now diverted from the computer. "What now? What for?"
"She not eating. She hasn't had anything solid for nearly three days now, and I'm worried about her health," Martha explained.
"I thought she said that she couldn't eat solids," Jack pointed out.
"Yes, repeatedly. That doesn't change the fact that if she keeps starving herself there are going to be serious consequences."
"The Doctor knows what he's doing," he answered.
"She's not the Doctor, Jack. And even if she were… you know how he can get sometimes," she sighed. "She won't be happy with it, but it's really for the best if she gets something in her."
Jack mulled this over for a moment. "Give her a day."
"I've starved to death before. It's not going to become debilitating until day five. Physically, she can afford another twenty-four hours," Jack offered. He was torn between vindication and self-loathing when she flinched at the mention of his being killed. "And you know as well as I do that the condition of her body isn't really the priority here."
Martha's mouth pressed into a thin straight line. "I don't like it."
"Neither do I, to be honest," Jack admitted. "But you know what the stakes are. The world's not going to survive Harold Saxon again."
Martha nodded. "I'm not sure I'd survive Harold Saxon again."
"Don't say that," Jack ordered. Martha was what had saved them last time. If she lost hope…
"No, I'm serious. I'm not sure I could walk the earth again. I'm not even sure that would work. If the timelines merge, will the Doctor still be there, waiting? Would Donna be enough if he wasn't? Would there still be a countdown to use? UNIT took out the psychic components to Archangel long ago- would they reappear along with the Toclafane and the Valiant?"
"I don't know," Jack answered honestly. He was trying not to think about it- about having to go back to living through the same apocalypse twice. "If it's any consolation, even in the worst case scenario, I'll get him eventually."
Martha looked pained by the very thought. "You might have to wait a long time."
"Yeah, I know."
The Master tapped his hands idly against the chair. Onetwothreefour. Onetwothreefour. Onetwothreefour. Not long now.
He'd known going into this that when the time came, the Doctor and his merry band of followers would go after the paradox machine. What else could they do? Nothing short of that would assure a victory, because it was the only way this could end without his death, the only way the world didn't change because of him. Of course, the reversal of time wouldn't be perfect, but retconing all those on the planet's surface and quantum locking his beautiful new world would seem like a pretty good idea to the Doctor, he was sure of it. Enough to overlook the victims he had kept aboard the Valiant still retaining their memories and their scars.
It was this knowledge that kept him from panicking after the paradox machine had disappeared from his ship. After a lot of things had disappeared, to be honest. The Jones, the Freak, the Doctor, all missing, and the planet below them in a state of flux.
It didn't take a genius to figure out what had happened- he'd been defeated, and that long victorious year had been deleted from history.
Except for the part when he was still around.
Despite the common belief, quantum locks weren't infallible. If it could be done, then undone, then it could also be redone. He would have no way of figuring out how exactly to do that after the Doctor had won; Lucy, bless her creatively insane heart, would see to that. But he had made certain discreet inquiries and had made an important discovery; all quantum locked events occupied the same little niche in the fabric of the universe. Break the seal on one, and they could all re-enter it the edges of their timeline caught on another. It was possible, with some modifications to the TARDIS, to ensure that when that happened his reality would catch along the normal time stream. Integration would be a spotty and potentially incomplete process, but it beat defeat by a long shot.
He wondered, idly, which event it had been. The Time War, probably. Perhaps the Daleks, looking to try and conquer the galaxy again. Annoying buggers- and dull too. Far too predictable enemies for his tastes. They were persistent though, he would give them that.
Far more entertaining, if less likely, was the thought that it was the Doctor who had done it. Tired of being the Last of the Time Lord, maybe; his current incarnation seemed prone to bouts of both madness and wallowing. It wasn't hard to imagine him becoming desperate enough to risk the consequences breaking a quantum lock would bring. And there would be such consequences. He'd make sure of that, just for him.
Watching as the planet convulsed in the window, Japan burning one minute, Australia freezing the next, he began to hum happily to himself. Here come the drum, here come the drums…
It didn't really matter what the reason was in the end. He was coming back- he was winning- and the Doctor was going to get the surprise of his lifetimes.
Pressing the small purple button located one the bottom left-hand corner of the screen prevents the Master from killing Jack for the seventy trillionth time. Something to keep in mind.