It was absurd that he didn't recognize it earlier. It wasn't like he hadn't had enough clues thrown at him to notice anything. Neil's remark about the lack of light-bulbs in this place should have rang off alarm bells or triggered him to think, at least that was what the Doctor contemplated. The problem was that his mind seemed to prefer to run on its own, too occupied by the thought of finding the Master to notice the bloody obvious. It irritated the Doctor. Maybe he was getting old.
It was one of those unwritten laws of life that something only gained in importance when it was gone. The Doctor found this to be definitely true for your home planet, the odd human companion, your childhood-friend turned arch-nemesis, and…for the lights in the tower. One moment it was still there, and he could easily count the steps on the winding staircase and follow the cables that ran criss-cross over the walls. Next thing he knew, it was gone, like someone had turned off the master switch, and the Doctor and his companions were suddenly surrounded by pitch-black darkness.
"Hey! Who turned off the lights?" Will yelled.
"What's happening?" Neil asked uneasily.
The Doctor looked up. He hadn't noticed before that the light was coming from the ceiling. That white haze that constantly hid the top of the tower had been exceptionally bright, like a cloudy sky in the long and dreary winter months. He went through his pockets and took out his sonic. Activating the small light at the tip, he was able to create a light beam that was bright enough to let him see at least two to three steps ahead.
"Everyone still here?" He swept the beam over the others, and counted three worried faces. "Okay. Now, let's not panic. It's just the lights at the top. Someone must have turned it off."
"You don't say." Aurelia replied with sarcasm. "Now what? I'm not going any further! One slip over the side and you're done for!"
"We've got light." The Doctor answered, irritated by her as usual. "We still know where we're going. There is no use in staying where we are."
"Well, it's a whole lot better than keep running around like a headless, directionless chicken." Aurelia complained.
The Doctor considered for a moment how her face oddly resembled that of a harpy when the light beam hit her in a certain way. "Brilliant. What do you want to do then? You want to just stand here? Grow old and die of old age?"
"I want us to have at least an idea that we're getting somewhere. Before that, I won't move a single step. We've been climbing this thing for hours now!"
The Doctor pressed his lips together into a thin white line and counted his dual hearts beats to forty. There weren't a lot of people who could irritate him as much as Aurelia did, although Donna's mom could be excruciating at times.
"Look, the stairs are going up and that's where I am going. Up! You want to stay, that's fine by me." He didn't travel all the way through the timevortex to be so close to his own salvation, only to be told by this screeching harpy that his quest had been futile. The Doctor turned around and started climbing the staircase again. Neil and Will stared at each other for a moment. They were hesitant to go without their teammate.
"Hey! You can't just leave me here in the dark all on my own!" Aurelia yelled after him.
The Doctor swirled around and shrugged at her with a wide grin plastered over his face. "Oh don't worry! We'll pick you up on our way down. Could take a while though. I don't exactly know what's up there, and this staircase is pretty long."
"But...that could take ages. What if something's out there trying to get me?" Although she kept her composure, a hint of fear sounded through her stubbornness.
"Oh I don't know, just start criticizing them incessantly like you always do and they probably run the other way with their scaly tails between their legs."
Aurelia was just inhaling a deep breath to tell the Doctor to go fuzz himself when Will intervened and managed to keep the conversation civilized.
"I'll stay with her." He rummaged through his backpack and took out a searchlight. He switched it on and gave it his female colleague. "Took two of these from the cruiser." He threw the other one at Neil who caught it in mid-air. Aurelia shone the beam directly in the Doctor's face. "Now you can go. Good riddance, asshole!"
"Right…Blimey." The Doctor mumbled before he turned around again and went up the stairs with Neil.
"Sorry for that." He said, trying to apologize for his friend's behaviour. "She's not always this difficult. Not when you know her little better. Must be this place. It gets on her nerves."
"I don't blame her." The Doctor mumbled, keeping his eyes on the steps ahead. "I wasn't exactly my own friendly, level-headed self."
"She's not daft or anything. She knows there's nothing in the dark. It's only that when she's stressed out, she kinda looses her head."
"Actually, there are good reasons to be afraid of the dark." The Doctor shone the blue light of his sonicscrewdriver over the edge of the staircase. The light beam disappeared into the dark pit without ever hitting the ground. "Shadows that shift and swarm and melt the flesh. Things that go bump at midnight and steal your soul. Goulies, ghosties and long-legged beasties. Only a fool wouldn't be afraid."
They had only ascended three levels up when a piercing scream cut through the darkness behind them.
Neil was alarmed. "That's Aurelia!"
The Doctor rushed back to the others. "Stay there!" He ordered as he jumped down three steps at the time. "And keep that light burning!" He could slap himself for being so dim-witted to leave those two behind. With his hearts bouncing inside his chest, his mind ran through all the possible monsters they could be facing right now. The Vastha Nerada, Dalek soldiers, the Skaro degradations, the horde of Travesties. If the prisoner could have survived the destruction of Gallifrey locked away in this tower, then what else could have escaped the final destruction of the Timewar?
Will and Aurelia were turned with their backs at him, facing whatever it was that crept at their feet in the shadows.
"What is it? What happened?" The Doctor shouted.
"C-centipede!" Aurelia stammered, her face so pale that it almost radiated light by its own.
"What? You screamed like that because you saw a little bug?" He aimed the light of his sonic at the steps below, expecting to see a harmless little creature scuttle away to safety, but instead the circle of light hit a bizarre looking flattened head the size of a wheelbarrow. It had red beady eyes and a massive pair of claws. The Doctor drew back the others when the antennas of the giant arthropod swept over them in search of the scent of food.
"Get up the stairs, both of you! Don't touch the claws! One sting and you're dead! Go! Go! GO!"
Will and Aurelia dashed forward, but the giant centipede responded quickly as if triggered by their movements. It crawled underneath the stairs and disappeared, its elongated body gliding fast over a wave of legs till it stuck its ugly head around the edge of the staircase again, just a few steps away from the two humans. It flashed its claws at them. Aurelia screamed and covered her eyes.
"Make it go away! Make it go away! Please!" She screamed. Will went frantically through his backpack and took out a flare gun. He aimed it at the centipede and pulled the trigger. A light flare shot out and struck the creature in its segmented body armour. It rushed back underneath the staircase in hiding.
"It's okay Aurelia. It's gone now. It's gone." Will breathed, and glanced over his shoulder at his friend who was still close to being hysteric.
"I don't think there's only one." The Doctor aimed the light at the steps below and revealed the horde of arthropodes that were sweeping up the stairs, forming a crazy carpet of swarming segments and legs, climbing on top and underneath the coil of bodies. It produced a loud and most unsettling noise like someone was scratching his nails over a blackboard as their hard outer shells rubbed against each other.
Will spun around and was about to fire again when a hand, a skeletal hand that was cold and spidery, grabbed his shoulder. He looked up and saw the most horrific face staring back at him with vacant, bloodshot eyes. The nightmare creature's mouth opened to reveal a swollen black tongue and shark-like teeth, while blood dripped down its chin, and pieces of rotting meat dangled from its cheek bones. Will screamed like a girl. With his fingers turning into soft butter he dropped the flare gun. Struggling to get away with all the anxiety of a mouse caught in a death-trap, he found himself pinned down by another pair of hands emerging out of the stone walls.
"Doctor?" Neil saw a shadow move at his right side. "Doctor is that you?"
He aimed his torchlight downstairs. It wasn't possible of course, but the light revealed a man in his late fifties, sitting calmly in a chair.
"Dad?" Neil backed away. With his hands trembling he turned the light away. "But it can't be. It can't be you."
He turned the beam back on the same spot. His father was sitting in a row with other men who were all prominent scientists in Neil's academic field. Dim lights suddenly switched on and reveal a congress room filled with an audience of astronomers.
Neil found himself standing on a podium. Bright spots were shining in his face. On the stand in front of him was a copy of his thesis. It described his work, the story of his discovery of the mythical planet. "And so I conclude." He spoke into the microphone, aware of the nervous tickle in the back his throat. "Not only does the planet Pevogla still exists. The results that we have gathered provides proof that Pevogla's gravity field is actually so immense that it challenges the forces of the blackhole and creates a force-equilibrium that sustains the existence of the very planet inside the its ravaging heart without it being destroyed."
As soon as he stopped speaking, an older gentleman rose from his seat.
"This is preposterous. I've never heard such nonsense!"
Neil started to sweat.
"Sir, if you would like to start a scientific discussion that's alright by me." He tried, determined to defend his findings. "The data we provide clearly show-"
"Your data must be forgery! Nothing could land on the surface of a planet with such an enormous gravity field. Your whole expedition is a scam!"
Someone threw his thesis at him. Neil backed away. ""No, no! We really were there. It's true! It's all true! Please! Just take a better look at the data!"
But his audience had already stopped listening to him. Suddenly, everyone single one of them was calling him a fraud and was chucking his scientific report at him. Facing his worst nightmare, Neil stepped further back. The sweat was dripping down his neck and soaking the collar of his shirt. He caught sight of his father who, sitting alone in the middle of the outraged crowd, bowed his head and covered his eyes in shame. The others started to make their way up. They packed together in front of the podium. He found himself surrounded by angry people who were reaching out at him with reddened faces. Someone grabbed his left foot and dragged him down. His heart fluttered wildly in his chest. For a second, reality flashed before his eyes. He looked over the edge of the staircase with the tips of his toes balancing on the brink and the rest of him leaning forward dangerously. Paralysed by fear, he blinked the sweat out of his eyes, and the nightmare image disappeared, only to return him on the stage with the angry crowd. Half-realizing with was going on and facing the chaotic wall of clutching hands, Neil screamed.
The Doctor had been rushing towards Will when he suddenly found himself holding a revolver in his hand. He was back in the Naismith mansion. Standing on his last strength, he faced Rassilon who had just emerged from the gate. As if on instinct, he raised the revolver and kept it pointed at him while at the same time, he was painfully aware of the Master's presence in the room.
"Kill him!" The Master urged, through his voice rang a confusing mix of fear, maliciousness and greed. "He's the Lord President. Kill him and Gallifrey could be yours!"
He stared at Rassilon who seemed so very confident and strong. Standing close enough to pick up his thoughts, The Master's pleads ran through his head. We can still change things, Doctor. You and I. Together we could rule like gods.
He stood between the two men, horrified by the choice he was offered, unable to decide. This time there was no weeping angel guarding over him, no easy way out. He was forced to murder one of them.
Calm and dignified, the lord president strode forward. "Chose." He demanded.
"You are a coward." The Master told him, fear burning in his eyes. "You always were a coward. Go on then. Do it!" Frightened by the decision he had to make, and with the gun trembling in his hand, he stepped with his heels on the edge of the staircase, and almost lost balance. Reality flashed in front of the Doctor's eyes. He looked down and stared right into the black pit below. It was a hell of a long way to fall. He shot a glance at Aurelia, who was still clutching her hands on her eyes and screamed as the pests swarmed around her. He saw how Will was trying to tear himself free from the wall where the dead creatures held him down.
Every one of them was paralysed by fear.
Finally realizing what he should do, he lowered the gun.
"What are you doing?" Rassilon stared coldly at him as he raised his deadly gauntlet. The metal started to glow threateningly. "You have to chose, which of us is it going to be, Doctor?"
The Doctor fiddled with his sonic screwdriver, quickly adapting the calibrations. "If it's up to me, neither of you." He said firmly, and aimed the sonic at his own head while he dropped the gun over the edge of the staircase into the dark abyss below.
"You lord-president." He said with a renewed confidence. "I've already sent you back to your private hell once. No need for me do it again. And as for you." He gazed at the Master with his eyes gleaming with determination. "I didn't travel here all the way through time and space to kill you, you dumb brick. I came here to save you, and that's exactly what I'm going to do."
He activated the sonic screwdriver. A wave of blue energy blasted from the tip and hit the Doctor and the others. The Lord president and the Master both disappear in front of the Doctor's eyes. He turned to Aurelia and Will and saw the horde of centipedes and the army of living dead vanish into thin air, leaving only the two humans standing on shivering legs.
"Yes!" The Doctor exclaimed. "Oh yes! It worked!"
Will gazed around with eyes still wide in shock. "W-Where are they? Where did they go?"
"Filtered them out of our brains." The Doctor held up the sonic. "It wasn't real. None of it was. Someone up there was sending out brainwaves that were infested with fear. They were amplified by the tower and the surrounding diamond lake. Penetrating into our minds, they showed us everything, everything we dreaded, everything that each of feared the most." He nodded his head at Aurelia, who was still hugging herself tightly. "With you it was a staircase swarming with creepy crawlies. And with you." He looked at Will. "Actually I'm sure what it was. Some sort of army of flesh-eating zombies? Am I right?"
"I'm sorry. I must have watched too many horror movies." Will admitted, a bit embarrassed.
"Nah, don't be sorry. Fear is seldom rational, that's how the bugger manages to sneak up on us behind our backs. The only thing you should apologize for, is for carrying a revolver. Don't you know that these things are dangerous? And why is it that everyone I meet nowadays is bringing along a gun with him?" He added, appalled.
"It was just a flare gun." Will quickly picked it up and put it back inside his backpack. "Was more for signalling purposes than it was meant as a firearm."
"Blimey, to be a pacifist in a universe filled with trigger-happy fools." The doctor commented with a frown.
"So none of it was real? There were no-" Aurelia swallowed the rest of her words as fear tightened her throat merely by remembering those disgusting creatures.
"No, there was nothing to fear but fear itself. - And the black pit of course, which together with gravity makes a rather deadly combination in situations like these."
A scream cut through the darkness. Doctor pushed the others aside as he realized that Neil was still all by himself, his mind left open and undefended for the fear waves to penetrate. "Follow me and stay close! He yelled back as he rushed up the stairs. "The sonic screwdriver only has a limited range!"
The crowd and the congress room were gone. Neil found himself back in the tower with the tug of gravity pulling on his body as he tipped over. Trying to regain balance, he swung with his arms like a demented bird. It was useless. He was about to be swallowed by the dark abyss when he felt a pull on his arm that jerked him backwards. Caught in momentum, he fell back, and passed right through the walls as if he was made of smoke instead of flesh and bones.
He was here. He was absolutely sure about it. He left him here, right where he was standing. But by the time he arrived Neil had completely vanished.
"Doctor, what happened to him?" Will asked, horrified. "Did they get him? He didn't fall, did he?"
The Doctor silently picked up the torchlight that Neil had left behind. It had rolled away from the wall and was lying right by the edge of the staircase.
"I'm sorry." He answered truthfully.
Aurelia had been standing silently at the back, but the Doctor's seemingly lack of response to Neil's fate shook her out of her impassive state.
"Is that all you've got to say? I'm sorry? Neil is gone!" She shouted at him as her eyes rimmed with tears. "This is all your fault! You took us, you dragged us here to this cursed place!"
The Doctor stared down at his feet, his face grim and guilt ridden.
"Calm down Aurelia." Will held back his grief-struck friend. "It was Neil who wanted to follow the doctor. It isn't the doctor's fault." He took Aurelia in his arms where she turned her face away from him. Her shoulders shook when she started to sob.
He left them both alone for a moment. Staring gravely ahead, he cursed himself for living such a long life that he had actually become used to death as his sole, faithful companion. Watching how Aurelia and Neil dealt with their grief, he wondered when he had actually lost that part of his humanity.
"We have to keep moving." He told them after while. "We can't stay here."
Neil stared around with his eyes wide in amazement. The last thing he remembered clearly was that he was looking into a gaping abyss and was facing a most gruesome death. Now he found himself inside a narrow corridor between two walls, entangled in a chaotic ball of cables.
"You're inside the tower walls." A man appeared from the shadows. Neil sighed of relief when he recognized the tall stranger. "You're in between virtual reality and reality." He continued to explain. It was in his habit to do so. He had no idea if the human would understand any of it, although he tried to keep it as simple as possible. "I'm sorry that you're stuck here for while, but I had to save you. You were about to fall to your death."
To his astonishment, the human came over and hugged him.
"Oh thank you! Thank you for saving my life Doctor."
The Doctor raised his eyebrows in surprise. "How come you know my name?"
"What do you mean?"
"My name. I haven't told you my name yet. Still you called me Doctor."
"But you ARE the Doctor." Neil smiled, convinced that the Timelord was just having one of his more eccentric moments. "Where are the others? Did you save them too?"
"The others? Oh you mean the other tress-passers who came here with you in that intergalactic cruiser? They are still wandering around in the Tower somewhere. I must say they are a clever lot. Well, at least one of them was clever. They found out about the corrupted brainwaves and stopped it before it could do any real damage." He paused. "Hang on, what do you mean, you ARE the Doctor, just as simply as that? Do we know each other? Have we met?"
"Well that's who you are, right?" Poor Neil was getting more and more confused as the conversation went on. "You introduced yourself as the doctor when we first met at the fuel station, isn't that your real name?"
"You met me before. And you know me, or at least a man very much like me." The Doctor pondered. "I am sorry, but my processing capacities are currently a bit below optimum. I had to change into solidvid form to pull you back, and that's always a drain on the resources."
Neil just stared at him as if he had completely lost his marbles.
"Right, I got it now." The Doctor turned to him, smiling contently that he had finally been able to crack it. "Tell me, did you by any change meet me on planet 19911744AA?"
"Hang on." Neil said after a short pause. "What the heck is going on here?"
The Doctor stopped dead in his track when his eyes fell on the cable nearest to him. It might have been that he had already failed to notice it once or twice or even a hundred times before, but he wouldn't be able to find out after such a long time. The thing that mattered was that he noticed it now. The black smear on the outer casing caught his attention. All the other cables had been covered by a grey layer of dust, but none of them had been burnt.
He slapped his head hard. Wondering how he could have been so boneheadedly stupid. The warnings in the ancient language scribbled outside on the wooden doors stirred his memory like a horde of bees awakening from winter's sleep.
"The nightmare child." He muttered quietly to himself. "Nightfall brings monsters out of these cursed stones." His voice gained in volume as his mind kept working, discovering new details that he had overlooked. "That's the fear we experienced. The Master and Rassilon, the centipedes and the flesh-eating monsters. But what comes next? What comes after FEAR? For we have made his prison be. Every step away from the." He grabbed the cable with both hands and grimaced before he swirled around to face the others. "Oh Aurelia." He lamented. "The girl named after the brightest of lights in the dark polar sky, please do me a favour and call me a pompous, self-righteous idiot!"
"You ARE an idiot." Aurelia said quietly, keeping her eyes on the floor.
"What's the matter Doctor?" Will asked worriedly.
"She was right! Aurelia had been right all the time. This staircase is endless! We've been going around in bloody circles." He showed him the damaged cable. "We were here when I tapped into the mainframe. The plastic casing has melted from the wire when the sparks hit me. We haven't moved."
"But…how's that possible?"
"My people were really ingenious, top notch creative with time and space. They could alter it to their own preferences, like how the tower is larger in the inside." He noticed the look of confusion on Will's face. "Just imagine that space is a piece of paper, with us on the stairs in corner A and the top of the stairs in corner B. Running up from A to B is completely logical and feasible. However, when the Timelords alter the very fabric of space by bending corner A and making it join to a point C somewhere in the line between A and B, you'll get a loop, a sort of wormhole shortcut. You start from point A and end up in point A, circling around continuously, but you'll never be able to reach the top of the stairs. That's what the inscriptions warned us about. That's how they keep the prisoner trapped inside. He can't get down the stairs and no one can get up there to set him free."
"But, can't we at least go back down?" Will asked.
The Doctor shook his head. "Point A isn't on the ground floor. It's somewhere in the middle of this cursed staircase."
"But there has to be a way." Will panicked. "We can't just be stuck here."
"If we could just find the joint." The Doctor muttered. "The exact location where point A and C are connected together. I could try to rip a hole through it and we could go to the other side. Only…"
"It could be tiny." The Doctor sighed, and sank down through his knees. "It could be absolutely minute. Just a microscopic spot that's dangling somewhere in the middle of the air between here and nowhere. It would be impossible to find."
"So we're screwed then." Aurelia commented in a matter of fact voice.
"Unless…unless we could use some sort of link that connects us to the outside." The Doctor jumped back up, his eyes flashing with sudden determination. "The cables run all the way to the top, but I can't use the cables. They are sealed off after I tried to tinker with the signal. Now what else can I use?! Think! Doctor. THINK! What else is there?"
The Master might provide the connection.
"Doctor?" Will came over to him, but the Doctor put his finger on his lips and shushed. "No, don't! Don't make a sound."
He realized that it was a long shot. He didn't even know for sure that the Master really was the prisoner of the tower, or even that he was still alive. He had tried before, as soon as they set foot in this place, to detect his presence, but so far he had failed to pick up even the faintest whiff of him. But perhaps he shouldn't have relied on his sense of smell alone.
He closed his eyes and listened.
There, hidden in the turmoil that was the frightened rattle of his human companion's hearts and the noise of vermin scuttling away on their spidery legs between the cracks and corners of the stone walls, covered up by the steady drip of leaking pipelines and the electric buzz of the sleeping cables dreaming their electronic dreams, at the spot where the damaged cable crossed another in an X shaped fashion and three steps at his right, there it was. A faint tapping in the familiar rhythm of four, calling to him through the joint from the other side.
His eyes snapped open. "Found it." He breathed with great relief and rushed over to the exact spot. He heard it. He heard the Master. This wasn't just a dead echo from the white point stars. The Master was here, sending out these signals. He was up in the tower. He was alive. With his hearts fluttering inside his chests, and with an excited energy buzzing through his limbs, he whizzed the sonic screwdriver over the invisible joint. The fabric of reality danced and rippled as a beautiful blue membrane appeared, bathing the Doctor in a soft glow.
"There is the hole in the joint!" The Doctor yelled. Suddenly the sound became so much louder. A banging noise, as if something collided with metal. "Now go through it quickly! It's not staying stable forever." He guided Aurelia through the portal, followed by Neil before he jumped through the blue membrane himself to the other side.
The Doctor's sneakers just touched the ground before the portal closed behind him, shrinking in size till it disappeared without leaving so much as an indication where it had been. They had arrived in a well-lit dome-shaped room at the top of the flight of stairs. In the middle was a round platform, connected to where they were standing by a narrow stone bridge. The Doctor looked down into the pit. From up here, there was no way someone couldn't see down to the bottom, for in between hovered a dense formation of white clouds, creating the ridiculous illusion that they had climbed all the way up to heaven. An enormous metal scaffold stood in the middle. The iron legs were secured to the floor with large bolts. It held up a large cage that hung from a set of rusted chains over the edge of the platform. It swung faintly from side to side, making an eerie squeaking noise.
"What's that strange banging sound?" Aurelia muttered. She and Will could both hear it now. It came from the hanging cage.
The cables that ran across the wall crossed the domed ceiling and gathered right in the middle into one single cable. It suspended downwards into the cage where it disappeared. The Doctor hurried forward. For some reason, this whole setting where they found themselves in summoned up memories of the time he was kept inside that tiny little birdcage by the Master.
Behind bars that were so rusted to the core that they had actually turned black, lay a man huddled on the bottom of the cage.
His frame was wasted to almost nothing. His chest was but a barrel of ribs, his cheekbones protruded from his face while his eyes were sunken deep inside his skull. He was caked with filth. The last threads of fabric that had once covered his body had rotten away many years ago. Chains that ran through iron rings bolted to the platform were fastened around his ankles and wrists, leaving angry red wounds. The Doctor noticed with horror how a heavy metal collar had been fastened around the prisoner's neck, and had cut through the i skin till on same parts, it had worn down right into the muscle tissue. The cable that was connected to all of the others ran into the collar and was wired up to a metal socket implanted into the back of the prisoner's neck.
His eyes were shut, as if he was asleep, but his head rocked back and forth, and hit the filthy metal grid on the bottom of cage.
The Doctor squatted down in front of him.
"Master?" His hearts broke. How long had he been kept in here? How long had he been suffering like this?
"Master? Can you hear me?"
"Oh please, make him stop." Aurelia whispered, horrified when she saw the wet patch of blood that bloomed at the side of his head. "I can't bear it. Doctor, make him stop."
The Doctor rushed to the entrance of the cage and found that door was not locked. He climbed inside on his hands and knees over the filth-stained floor till his was by the Master's side. Cradling his head in his arms to stop him from hurting himself, he leaned forward with his lips almost touching his forehead.
"Master. I'm here.' He whispered. "I came back."
He studied his face, but the deadened expression that bordered on catatonia didn't change.
"Can you hear me? Please. Please Master. Please."
This was his fault. Why didn't he find him earlier? Why was he such a complete failure? For all the humans he had saved, all the incredible things he had done, every planet and star that was still up there in the sky because of him, what good was all of that if he couldn't save the Master from own destruction?
"He can't answer you."
Tearful, the Doctor gazed up at a man who had suddenly appeared. He wore his coat and jacket, his sneakers and his trousers. He looked exactly like him. "He can't even hear you." The man continued. "The neurological connections that serve his senses are all damaged."
"W-who are you?" The Doctor furrowed his brows. Then he noticed Neil who was waving at him from the other side of the bars. The others rushed over to their lost teammate. Overtaken by joy, they hugged him tightly in their arms.
"It's okay Doctor!" Neil explained. "He's a hologram who runs this place. I was about to fall into the pit when he saved me."
"I'm not exactly a hologram." The other Doctor further elucidated. "I'm a program who can be visualized in a hologram form to be more precise, and I don't run this place. I wish. My Master controls this place."
The other Doctor nodded his head at the unconscious prisoner resting in his arms. "He controls this place. Or at least for as much as he is still capable to do so in his ruined state." He gazed at the Doctor with what could only be described as star-struck admiration in his eyes. "You must be the Doctor. I'm so glad to finally meet you. You must have noticed how my Master has created me in your image." He took the Doctor's hand and shook it enthusiastically. "It's an honour sir. I've seen so many good things that you've done through my Master's memories. He hated you for it of course, but since my personality matrix is also based on your character, I can only applaud all of your tireless heroic achievements."
"The Master, HE created you?"
"Yes he did." The other Doctor said with a broad grin.
"Why did he create YOU?" The Doctor blurted. "I mean, no offence, but I thought he hated me."
"Yes, well. He doesn't." The other Doctor paused, visibly confused by the question. "You know, I've spend the last 1445 years taking care of him and still I'm not sure what he thinks of me, I mean you." He nervously jumped on his toes. "But he needs you, I'm sure about that."
He squatted down beside the Doctor, noticing his distress. "And right now, he needs you more than ever."
"Did you do this to him?"
The other Doctor grimly shook his head.
"Then who did this?!" The Doctor asked, his voice rising with his anger. "Why is he wired up like this? Who chained him down like a dog, and who put him in this bloody cage and threw away the key?!"
"I don't know who locked him up in here. I wasn't here when it happened, and he keeps that part of his memory hidden from me. Maybe he has forgotten about it because of his madness, or perhaps he has wiped it from his mind intentionally. With him you can never be quite sure about these things." He gazed worriedly at the Master. "The wires were his idea. They were there even before he created me. It's part of his support system. It's how he has survived all these hundreds of years. Still, he couldn't prevent that his physical form has wasted away." He gazed up at the numerous bundles of cables that ran over the ceiling. "He tried to keep himself sane by creating a simulation that would keep his brains occupied, a fake reality within his mind that he could control and retreat into. Facing two thousand years of solitude with nothing but your own nightmares to keep you company, it was the sanest thing someone in his position could do."
"You're telling me that he made you? Because you were suppose to keep him sane?"
"Oh yes, and I failed, I failed miserably." The other Doctor sighed. "There is something about what you two experienced when you both were still children, back on Gallifrey, that makes him trust you more than anyone else in the entire universe. He even trusts you with his own life. He chose you to guard over him, knowing that one day, his mind would start to fail him, and he would need someone to help him survive."
"How long has he been like this?" The Doctor asked while the other Doctor's words weighed heavily on his shoulders.
"Two hundred, two hundred and forty years perhaps. No use in counting the days in this place, they just melt silently into weeks, and the weeks into years. The last time he seemed lucid, and said anything that made sense…" The other Doctor paused for a moment and looked away. "It's been so long, I can't even remembered when he said it. But I remember that he stared at me with that look in his eyes." He gazed at the Doctor. "He knew. He was still aware what was happening to him, he knew that everything inside him was shutting down and that little by little he was dying. He was so afraid to die alone, but he didn't want to show it, not to you."
"What did he tell you?"
"He said that he forgive me. For leaving."
The Doctor swallowed an awful lump that got stuck inside his throat.
"I'm not exactly sure what it meant. I've never been allowed to follow him when he retreats to that specific part of his past. He keeps that from me too." The virtual Doctor quietly studied the tears that ran down the real Doctor's face. "But at least it seems to mean something to you."
"It's my fault." The Doctor admitted. "I should have been there for him. He needed me and I ran away, left him on his own, alone with those drums assaulting his mind. I should have stayed, but I couldn't because…because I was scared. The Master was right. I am a coward. Never been anything else. And now…" The Doctor broke down in sobs, rocking the Master in his arms.
"And now, perhaps you could stop running, stop being a coward, and help him as you should have."
The Doctor choked back his tears and looked at his digital clone. "What do mean? How can I be of any help to him now?"
"He's not lost. Not yet. You can still reach him. In here." The other Doctor tapped on his forehead. "Over the years I've tried to bring him back many times. I've written programs on my own, ran every combination that was possible within my coding matrix to help him to recover consciousness. I've tried to lead him to the memories that were the most benign to him, the recollections of his father, and the days he passed on the Academy together with you. But it was of no use, he resisted every prospect to recovery, corrupted every chance of finding redemption. Every time I tried to save him, he retreated further away into the most horrible parts of his memories, and he came out worse than when he started. The last program I ran as a final attempt to get him back was a complete disaster, and might have brought him to the brink of what his mind could still tolerate."
He stared quietly at his creator, like his human counterpart, the blame he felt for failing him strained his hearts.
"He doesn't believe he deserves any better, you know." He said, after a long pause. "It's his guilt. It keeps him away from anything that could offer him his salvation."
He turned to the Doctor. Over the years, he had helplessly watched the Master spiralling down, his madness claiming the last of his spirit, till there was almost nothing left but a hollow shell. He didn't wish to see this to go on.
"I've tried." He explained in an attempt to justify his failings. "I really did. I've tried everything that was in my capacity. But I'm only a program, composed of ones and zeros, fixed in a coding matrix with a limited number of possibilities. But you, you're my living counterpart. The real Doctor, made of flesh and blood. What your mind can come up with is… is limitless, I know that, because I've seen what a brilliant but damaged mind like that of my Master could do."
He looked straight at the Doctor, a renewed glint of resolve burning in his eyes.
"Imagine what a sound and equally brilliant mind like yours could do for him, Doctor."
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