Thes's whole body felt different, every cell fundamentally changed, but although he felt stronger and more aware than he had ever felt before, there was still one thing that had not changed. He was dying. Those bolts of life energy had burned him from the inside, melting tissues and damaging his cells beyond repair. He dragged himself to his feet, but could go no further.
"…regenerating…it's something Time Lords can do when we're injured…sort of instead of dying…"
The Doctor's words passed through his memory – but how could they help him now? New-found instincts told him that regeneration was a complicated and dangerous process, and he had absolutely no idea what it involved. It would be impossible. His mind grasped this, clinging to it, accepting and confirming it as truth…and all the while, at the back of his mind, he was aware of the innate fragility of his perception, the possibility that what he knew was not, in fact, reality.
Every muscle in his body seemed to go into a spasm, his arms jerking out straight and head thrown back as a rush of energy surged through him. Through a fog of golden mist, the last thing he was aware of was the hazy outline of the Master appearing at the end of the corridor from around the corner.
The Master shielded his eyes from the flare of artron energy, and when it cleared, he lowered his hand…and staggered back in shock. There, undeniably the source of the Time Lord consciousness that he could feel, stood a mirror image of himself, dressed in ill-fitting, baggy clothes that just moments ago had been worn by the human teenager called Theta Sigma Moreau. He could sense that consciousness so clearly, like a ghost from his past – but it wasn't her, could not be her; and yet, its presence was so undeniably real – Thes had to be real.
All of a sudden, his doppelganger's whole posture altered in an instant – Thes's awkward, slouching stance was gone, and he met the Master's eyes straight on for the first time and opened his mouth. The voice that came out was the Master's own, but he would have known the haughty, sharp-tongued tone anywhere.
"I told you, you're unbalanced."
Then he was gone – just vanished into the air as though he had never existed.
"No!" The Master snatched wildly at the empty air as if he could drag Thes back into existence, make him tangible again so that he could punish him for playing such a cruel trick. Because it was a trick, wasn't it? A jarring shudder shook the whole shuttle, knocking him to his knees – the ship was breaking apart without Thes to hold it together. He scrambled to his feet and ran for the impenetrable safety of the TARDIS. All around, the metal hull of the shuttle screeched and groaned as rivets and joints disintegrated and reality bent the framework of the structure out of shape. The blood roared in his ears and his hearts pounded fit to burst, and all the while, that image of his bizarre, unnatural double was burned into his mind's eye. It seemed to flash before him at the edges of his vision wherever he looked – an infuriating spectre, just out of reach.
A deafening explosion came from the bowels of the ship – the engine – leaving his ears ringing, every sound deadened to a distant murmur. Slowly, his hearing returned, bringing with it a familiar beat that pounded in time with his hearts, a relentless rhythm.
One two three four...one two three four...
"No!" he shrieked, clawing at his head until he drew blood in crimson streaks down the sides of his face. He pressed his hands to his ears, but the drums continued, throbbing through his head, louder than ever. "No! Get out! Get out!" A wrenching crack resounded through the shuttle; over the drumbeat, the Master could make out a rushing hiss as the air began to leak into the vacuum of space. Adrenaline coursed through his veins and he ran again, the plastic of the corridor walls buckling and splintering around him. Just as he reached the corridor that led to his quarters, the lights flickered, glaring bright with a fizz and then dying completely, leaving him stumbling blindly through the darkness, reaching out to feel his way along the wall. The aluminium door was refreshing coolness beneath his hands, but he didn't pause for a second. Light from the TARDIS glowed faintly in the pitch blackness, and he threw himself against the door which fell open and then slammed behind him.
Even inside the capsule, safe and cut off from the chaos of the destruction of the shuttle, silence was nowhere to be found – everywhere, as though they were coming from the walls themselves, the drums beat on and on.
One two three four...one two three four...
In the pale green glow from the central console, shadows cast by the coral arches stretched out towards him, phantom fingers pointing, taunting, mocking.
"You are diseased…"
"Get away from me!" he screamed, pressing himself back against the wall, eyes darting about wildly, searching for an escape. There – he made a dash for the entrance to the rest of the TARDIS and ran. He could feel it pursuing him, lapping at his heels as he ran and ran. It didn't matter where he ended up – he just had to get away from it, from that grotesque duplicate of himself with its voice that rang in his ears, from the drums that beat excruciatingly against the inside of his head.
One two three four...one two three four...
Now he was pushing through a swirling grey fog that seemed to grow thicker with every step he took, forcing him back and pressing down on him from all directions. He could taste it in his mouth, foul and choking like bitter ash, and he gagged and retched, doubling over.
"…what are you doing here?"
Wraiths of mist loomed up around him, a circle of figures eight feet tall that closed in on him until he broke through and was again running, out of the fog and down into the farthest reaches of the TARDIS's dimensions. Inky blackness once again closed around him, and the drums were following him through the dark, echoing louder and louder until he felt his head would split with it.
One two three four...ONE TWO THREE FOUR...ONE TWO THREE FOUR...
And then the curtain of darkness parted before him and he was falling through the gap – and there was the Doctor, stood in front of him and around him and behind him, just standing, beating out the rhythm of four with both hands.
ONE TWO THREE FOUR... ONE TWO THREE FOUR...
"Stop, just stop!" He covered his head with both hands, trying desperately to shut out the sound, but it penetrated right to his bones with an agonizing tremor that was almost forgotten. There were arms around him now, a pair of hands on his arms – but it couldn't be the Doctor, could it, because the Doctor still stood impassively around him, the source of that perpetual pounding. The last threads of reality snapped, and he crumpled to the floor with a scream as his unstable life force seared through him, burning like molten lava. Every inch of his body burned with volatile energy that felt like it was tearing him apart from the inside out. Dimly, through the red mist of pain that crept across his eyes, he was aware of those arms around him, holding him, and he tried to lash out.
Then the core of his life force energy exploded out of him and it was over.
For a long time, the Doctor remained where he was, knelt on the floor of the prison cell, surrounded only by his countless reflections. A spasm of pain shook his shoulders as dissipating energy rushed through him, and he raised his now-translucent hands in front of his face.
In another parallel dimension, he was already long gone, and soon, that would be the only dimension he existed in. Wilf would be living his own life, and the human race would continue as it had for countless lifetimes along the road that was meant for it, trillions of years through the future, right to the end of time. The universe would be saved – but sometimes…sometimes, it was so hard, and he was so alone.
"I don't want to go," he called into the empty air as he threw his head back and golden light streamed from his face and hands. On his back, the Time Beetle was incinerated in a flash of shining artron energy. The billions of dimensions that it had seeded, every branch of the fractal, folded in on itself and in that fragment of a second, had never been, and there was only the root of the tree.
"Get out of the way."
The Master's eyes flickered sideways, and his razor-sharp mind quickly calculated - there was an option C after all. The corner of his mouth twitched slightly, as he flung himself to one side and the pistol's shot sounded. The transmitter focusing the signal through the White Point Star exploded in a flash of blinding light and scorching fire - behind it, Wilfred Mott, unnoticed in the nuclear containment booth, shielded his eyes as he heard the Doctor declare
"The link is broken! Back into the Time War, Rassilon! Back into Hell!"
As Rassilon glared in fury at the Doctor, a distant voice echoed through the tear in the Time Lock, and the white light grew brighter around the Time Lord figures silhouetted before the Immortality Gate.
"You die with me, Doctor," Rassilon spat, raising his gauntlet towards the unflinching Doctor.
"I know," he said. Behind him, the Master struggled to his feet, wringing his hands.
"Get out of the way," he said, and the Doctor turned in surprise to see the Master draw his hand back and hurl a bolt of pure energy past the Doctor and straight into Rassilon's hearts.
"You did this to me!" he snarled, rage twisting his features. "All of my life!" He drew back his other hand and flung another bolt. "You made me!" Now he flung bolts in quick succession, counting out the beat that had resounded in his head for countless years. The unstable life energy inside him threatened to burn him up at any minute, flashing out from his core as he counted, making his failing body almost translucent.
The blinding white glow now enveloped him, and as Rassilon and the Time Lords were sucked back into the Time Lock, the Doctor was thrown to the ground, dazzled. The white light faded - Rassilon had vanished, leaving only the ruined Immortality Gate and a cold, empty silence.
"I'm alive…" Struggling for breath, the Doctor lifted his head, slivers of broken glass falling from his hair.
"I'm alive…" he repeated, hardly daring to believe it. "I'm still alive…" Half laughing, half choked with tears, he began pushing himself up onto his hands and knees.
And then, resounding through the deserted hall, came a sound that froze the Doctor to the soul.
One two three four...
Whew! That's it - the end of the line!
Well, I've had a fantastic, brilliant time writing this thing! I feel like I've achieved my goal and grown as a writer - and judging by some of the feedback, there's quite a few of you out there who have enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Which is awesome!
And I know that last segment is exactly the same as the first. That's with a point - it's not just me being lazy - it's to show that it is exactly the same moment in time.
I'm not generally in the habit of asking outright for reviews, but since this is my longest fic yet, I'd like to request that if you have read the whole blinkin' thing, please leave a comment! Anything, even just a "wtf", just so I know how many people have actually finished it. That'd be much appreciated. :) Also, if you enjoyed it, do recommend it to other people who you think might be interested - I'd hate to see this thing just fade into obscurity and die.
A little note for those of you who do feel like writing "wtf" in the review: basically, my idea was that by manipulating the broken reality, the Master was reinforcing his own insanity, thereby bringing about his own downfall when he finally lost control.
Many, many thanks for reading this, my loyal, persistent readers! May you never be turned into Toclafane! :D