The Doctor was running out of breath as the Hammerbeast gained on him. It had shaved the nape of his neck a few times, sending a flurry of purple sparks through his vision and scattering his emotions. The Hammerbeast was best known for its hammer-shaped head, but also for its ability to completely turn people inside-out emotionally. They turned love to hate, fear to elation, and mania to unfathomable depression.
But first it had to get to you.
The Doctor was jumping rocks on a dark, empty planet. Well, empty save the Hammerbeast. It had landed on the barren planet in a futile search for its family. Having lost them sometime around the Time War, it traveled the galaxy looking for its three mothers and sister. Its search was constant and unending.
The Doctor's red hair flickered in the multicolored moonlight. "I can help you find your family!" he said, jumping boulders. The Hammerbeast just kept trucking forward. "I have a time machine! We can go back and find them!" The beast swung its head violently at the Doctor, missing this time by an inch.
The Doctor suddenly felt love for the rocks in his way. He wanted to lean down and hug them. It was a mild sensation. The Hammerbeast had gotten close but had not yet landed an emotionally scattering blow.
"I don't think you understand who you're dealing with," the Doctor said as they bounded down an incline.
The Hammerbeast didn't talk but it grunted and huffed. It could see the tiny, blue TARDIS off in the distance. The Doctor's time machine couldn't save him. He would run out of breath and collapse long before getting to the safety of the call box. The Hammerbeast swung again and grazed his shoulder, turning the Doctor's desperation into assurance. He slowed down, and the Hammerbeast stopped fast, standing directly behind the Time Lord.
"Oh dear," the Doctor said as the hammer fell.
I I I
"Temporal mechanics," said Dr. Stately to his classroom of seven thousand, tell us that in addition to infinite time and infinite dimensions, there are also infinite places that do not exist, that will never occur and never happen.
The green Gorl in the front row raised its hand. "But didn't the Zsu test in the Hyperion cluster disprove that?"
Dr. Stately smiled and looked intrigued. "Zsu's journey to the World That Never Was has not yet been verified as he has yet to return."
Just as Dr. Stately finished his sentence, a glint began its descent from the top of the classroom arcology. It was a lecture pod, used to ferry the professors back-and-forth to the podium. A voice spoke through the speakers under the students' seats.
"But I have returned." It was the snakelike voice of Zsu, the foremost temporal researcher on Earth, a man born in 2150 but somehow still alive now in 5280, an expert in time because he had lived more of it than most other humanoids. And now here he was, returning triumphant from a place that did not exist.
"I have returned, and I have evidence," he said stepping out of the pod next to the smallish Dr. Stately. Both humans, Stately stood an even five feet tall, compared to the towering Zsu, a smooth-skinned multi-millenarian that had to look down at most people to address them.
He pulled a small, black item from his jacket. It looked like a pair of scissors, but only a silhouette of scissors. There was no texture or depth to them. It was as if they weren't there.
Zsu pointed to the green Gorl in the front row. "You. You know that I went to a place that does not exist. But if it does not exist, how did I get there?"
The Gorl flipped through some scattered notes, put on its tri-specs and read aloud. "Temporal diversification means odd interval temporal annihilation. But annihilation happens relative to other timelines-"
Zsu stepped down from the proscenium and snatched the papers from the Gorl. "What is your name?"
"You're reading my notes, Leena." He made a show of looking at the paper and then at Leena and then back to the paper. "How would you have gotten these?" He was challenging the young creature, young relative to him, anyway.
Leena was uneasy and looked it. The green spines running down the Gorl's back furled. "Because I've traveled with someone that doesn't exist."
Zsu reached under Leena's desk and audio-ed her workstation into the classroom's speakers. Then he leaped back onto the lecture stage and walked in a circle with his arms raised. Zsu looked like a man that had just conquered the universe, but he didn't say anything. He looked at Leena, his arms still raised. He was still challenging her, drawing the next sentence out of her, not through science or magic, but through the ages old intuition of someone that knows when someone has something important to say.
"What is going on?" Dr. Stately finally chimed in. He couldn't bear to look directly at Zsu. So, he shuffled awkwardly to the podium and spoke into the mic. "What is going on, Leena?"
The Gorl looked at Zsu and saw nothingness in his eyes, saw the end of the universe and the beginning of another. The Gorl had the ability to see the Other, the Person in the Mirror, the Person That Could Have Been when looking at a creature. The Gorl saw a person not as a static thing but as a fluid fluctuation of a lifetime's worth of choices. Zsu had lived a long life.
There were more than a few of her race present in the classroom, their innate racial abilities bound up in the research of temporal mechanics. Many served as valued researchers abroad, but under Zsu's watch, several had been true-to-life guinea pigs, strapped in and suited up for painful, dangerous tests. They all claimed to have done so willingly, to have wanted to see what lied beyond, but it was awkward and grandiose presentations like those today that made most creatures not trust the snaked-voiced Zsu. Though, most claimed to respect him.
"Who does not exist?" Dr. Stately's faced twitched with discomposure.
The entire classroom stood, all seven thousand, as they watched what was happening on the monitors in front of their seats. Zsu had reached up behind Dr. Stately with the silhouette scissors. The smallish man hadn't even noticed, his own nerves clouding out his periphery.
The hall was silent. A human girl next to Leena gasped. This caused Dr. Stately to turn around. He looked up and, in the panic of the moment, no longer saw Zsu, but rather a giant of the Earth, a being that had seemed to live forever, looking down at him like he wasn't even there.
I I I
In all the years he had lived, the Doctor had never been so sad. The Hammerbeast had been reunited with its family in the most heartwarming scene ever played out under a multicolored moon. He had sung and laughed and danced with them, almost like a Hammerbeast himself, but such close contact with the happy clan had rewired the Doctor's emotional circuitry, at least for the moment. He deliberately stubbed his toe against the TARDIS control panel to feel better.
"Remind me never to misinterpret the emotional state of a creature whose happiness can make you want to explode yourself," the ginger Doctor said, circling the panel, flipping switches. "Maybe when they hit you on the head, it means, 'Thank you.' Or, 'Sure. Thank you.' Or, 'Look, there's my family.' Probably the last one, but maybe the first one." He scratched his head and walked out the doors onto the rocky planet.
The Doctor looked up.
"The stars are in the wrong place."
He walked back in and tapped some buttons, pulling out a small screen. He walked outside again.
The Doctor pointed his finger at the stars, mentally rearranging them. He looked confused. The Hammerbeast clan was still celebrating a short ways off.
"Excuse me," the Doctor said, walking into their midst. They were drunk on upside-down happiness.
"S(HF98hf," the Hammerbeasts said in unison. It translated as, "Hello, red-vested one." The Doctor wore what appeared to be a large life-preserver. He felt safer in the TARDIS that way, in case of floods.
"What planet is this? I mean, I thought it was Titnel VII. I mean, it seems like Titnel VII."
"sjp0938eh5p9e8ht?" they replied. "What is Titnel VII?"
The Doctor nodded. "Right, right. What is Titnel VII," he trailed off. The he walked back to the TARDIS. He popped the small screen out again and tapped it. "Wrong universe?"
He walked outside and looked up again.
I I I
Leena spoke quickly. "It was the Doctor."
Zsu held fast. Dr. Stately took the opportunity to run off the stage. "You know him," the tall, ancient said, pointing the nothingness shears at the Gorl.
"I knew him," Leena said with more than a little regret. "Like I said," she choked. "He doesn't exist."
Zsu lowered his arm but still managed to point the scissors toward her. "Paradox."
The Gorl's three eyes blinked left-to-right and a tear fell from each one. "Pointlessness," she whispered. Because Zsu had linked her workstation into the classroom's speaker system, everyone heard what Leena said. She pushed her Retraction button causing her station to move itself to the aisle, taking her back and out of the classroom while everyone stood silent and watched, even Zsu. He had seemed to understand her pain for just a moment before regaining his composure.
He hopped in the lecture pod and flew up and out in pursuit. A general murmur rose from the students. With Stately cowering and Zsu gone, class had been summarily dismissed.
Leena ran through Corridor 7 past the Temporal Mechanics labs and Shurn Terrarium. Zsu's notes crinkled in her hand as well as a single slip of paper written by the Doctor.
"How did you know him," Zsu stepped out in front of her as she turned a corner. The Gorl almost fell on him, and would have, except for her ability to stick instantly to any surface. She stopped flat.
"You were going to kill him," she said. "Dr. Stately."
The old man pulled out the shears. "There's a difference between dying and not existing," he said. Several students threw sideways glances as they walked past. Indifferent to his audience, Zsu spoke with impunity. He poked at the papers in Leena's hand. "How did you get my notes?"
"I've met you before."
"How did you meet me before?"
She squeezed the papers. "I took a time machine to the future, met you, listened to every regret you had about everything you had ever done, and you gave me your notes." She paused. Leena looked up at him for a moment. His face was young, definitely not the one she remembered seeing locked up in the Time Prison: the galaxy's famous incarceration facility for wayward temporal tinkerers that just didn't know when to quit.
"Were you his pet?" Zsu asked.
Leena grabbed at the shears, and the man snapped backward a step.
"Did he treat you like he treats everyone else?"
The Gorl was tough, but hurt shown in her face. Her spines twitched.
"Did the Doctor show you the best parts of the universe and then drop you off to live the mundane life of someone that can never again have space-time as their own personal playground? Tell me how it feels."
She reached again, and Zsu grabbed her shoulder. The Gorl spun around the man's flank and twisted his arm. Leena whispered into his back. "You will hate yourself for everything that you do." She pushed him forward. Zsu stuck the shears back into his pocket.
Leena walked away, his notes still in her hand.
I I I
The Traxian clung to the wall, its amorphous jelly quivering against approaching thunderclaps.
"Hello there," it said as Leena walked in the door. "Assaulting a man that can erase your existence with a twitch of his fingers. Not smart."
Leena set the notes down and didn't look at her roommate. Her leftmost eye scanned the room. She calmed and bit her lip. "I can do far worse to him."
"You can't," the Traxian said and sloughed to the floor. It formed upward into the shape of a nondescript humanoid. "You won't."
"I won't," Leena said with sass and dropped down into her chair. An auto-masseuse arm activated and went to work on her tense spines. She examined her hands and the desk in front of her. Though, she didn't see a desk and she didn't see her hands. She saw the TARDIS control panel, the Time Lord with shock red hair and the taut centrifugal rings of the Daelus Cluster, the first place they had ever journeyed together.
Leena spun in the chair and faced the Traxian. "You saw everything, huh? Did you use the link?"
Traxians could make substantial empathic and telepathic links with those that shared close quarters with them. They could also slip around as a mostly invisible sheen because their bodies had no mass. Leena had seen her Traxian turn into everything from a shower curtain to a food wrapper, and while she sensed no mischief or ill will from her nameless roommate, the Gorl always suspected there was much more to him than anyone would guess. After having first encountered the Traxian people in the Daelus Cluster with the Doctor, she had been presented with a race that was so calm and collected that one could swear they were always hiding something.
I I I
"They're so calm and collected. I swear, they are hiding something," the Doctor said, leading Leena through the Gshtarl Unet, or, 'The Hall of Traxus.' It was a large, rotating sphere lined with twitching statues.
"Doesn't seem like they would have a lot to hide. They have no mass," Leena said. She pulled a recording device from her oversized lab coat.
"The statues," the Doctor said, pointing, "Are made of Traxians. They just hang there."
"What are they doing?" Leena pointed the device around the room.
"Trying," he said, frankly. The Doctor reached for her recorder. Leena snatched it away. "I'm just curious," he said.
"So am I," Leena replied and went back to scanning. She tapped a few buttons.
"Maybe," he said, "They have so little mass that you can't read it, or they have so much that you can't read it."
Leena walked deeper into the hall, "It's a wonder that you get anywhere in the universe with second guessing like that."
"Not second guesses. Observations. Questions. Queries. Possibilities."
"Too many," she said, looking him up-and-down, "Red."
The Doctor was tall and skinny. He wore tan corduroy leggings and a bright orange vest. His hair was so bright that it almost glowed, like he never quite finished regenerating, and the power had all accumulated over his head.
"Trying what? Trying to make a statue?"
"Trying everything, anything, nothing. Try to be nothing. Trying to be your best friend, your enemy, your coat. They are natural experimenters." The Doctor ascended to a small dais. It sunk and pooled in front of his feet before reforming as a bear with a helmet on.
Leena picked up a bag of marbles and rolled it in her hand. "No wonder you don't trust them. They'll do anything."
The Doctor shook his head. "No, no. You're safe here. Traxians are safe. They have a very strict moral code."
The Gorl pulled out a marble and tossed it in the air. "I sure hope you read that code thoroughly." She caught the marble. "And why aren't they trying to communicate?"
A blob slithered over next to Leena and formed up into the shape of an older-looking Gorl. Its face mushed and skewed, twitching and morphing until it settled on a figure that looked something like Leena's.
"Looks like they're trying for you," the Doctor said, pointing. He sauntered over.
Leena gazed, slack-jawed. "No," she said and shook her head. "They're trying for my mother."
The Doctor ran his finger along the Traxian copycat. "That's because they're in your head. They're in mine, too. That's how they communicate. They feel what you feel, remember what you remember. They'll talk to us, in their own time, if they feel like it. But for now, it looks like they're interested in you."
Leena put her hands in her coat and peeked around the copycat. "Why me? You're much more interesting than me."
"I'm not a Traxian," he said. "You're a Gorl. Your race doesn't even exist to them yet. Thousands of light years and millions of years distance. Wouldn't you be interested?"
Leena lightly grasped at the copycat's fingers. "But you have the time machine. You fought in a time war."
The Doctor sobered a bit. "War's interesting," he said, also putting his hands in his pockets. "But at best, it's just a really bad game. Time travel's just a different kind of mobility. Doesn't matter if you're a Traxian, human, Gorl, or Time Lord. There's magic and beauty in the universe that far transcends our running and our fears."
The copycat Gorl blinked its three eyes. "Hello," it said and gripped Leena's fingers. She quickly pulled away.
"Hallo!" the Doctor said and stepped up. He took the copycat's hand. "I'm the Doctor, and this is- well, you know who this is. You're in her head."
"What can they see? What can you see?" Leena asked.
"Nothing that you would not readily show us," the Traxian said. "We have learned that such limits must exist, but some connection is necessary to facilitate communication."
The Doctor looked the hall up-and-down. "The bear with the helmet. What was that all about?"
The Traxian turned to him. "You were thinking about a bear with a helmet."
He nodded. "Quite right."
"But I wasn't thinking about my mother," Leena said, furling her spines. "I really wasn't thinking about her."
"We did not glean her from your mind. You simply look like her."
"You've met my mother," the Gorl said, flexing her hands in her pockets.
The Traxian transformed into a tall humanoid with a long, brown duster and a blue suit and pointed at the Doctor. "He brought her here."
"You what?" Leena said, stepping backward. She tottered and almost tripped. The Doctor's head glowed under the swirling lights of a descending Traxian procession. He took several deep breaths before speaking.
"I stood in this hall, with your mother. A long time ago. Longer for me. Not so long for you." The Doctor reached out his hand to help Leena up and she sunk down onto her haunches. "That's why I brought you here. So you could know."
"I know something happened to her. I lost her," Leena said, her spines standing on end. "What did you do to her?"
"I didn't do anything to her. I couldn't help her." He was angry.
"And who is this?" Leena pointed up at the copy in the duster.
"That's me. When I was here last. It was a different life for me, different generation."
She sat back and scanned the ground, confused. "Why would you do this to me?"
"So you could know the truth."
"I don't want to know the truth," she said. "I don't want to be here."
The procession landed just behind the Doctor. Eight pools formed into nondescript humanoids. They started to speak but he stopped them. "I'll tell her."
Leena was backing toward the TARDIS. The Doctor leaned down and took her hand. "I know the Gorl can see all possibility in one person, but you can't see it in me." She was crying. Leena shook her head.
He squeezed her hand. "Your mother could see it, too, just like any other Gorl. She couldn't see it in me, either. Just like you, she couldn't. And then she met a man whose possibilities were almost universally bad. It wasn't me. It wasn't, I promise."
She sniffed. "What happened to her? What did he do?"
"She trapped him. Shadow Proclamation came, put him in a time prison. He'll never hurt anyone again."
"Then why isn't she here!"
"Because she can't be. Because he took her before she could stop him." The Doctor snapped his fingers. "Just like that. That's the power he had. The Traxians," he said as Leena tried to pull away. The Doctor let her go. "The Traxians have been trying for a millenium, in this hall, to find a way to bring your mother back."
"Why," Leena said. "Why would they do that?"
The procession stepped forward. "Because she saved us."
The Doctor leaned down and whispered, "There are whole races that will spend a thousand years trying to bring back one good person. That is the universe you've run out into. And you need to know that first, here, now, because so much seems worse. So much seems terrible. You need to know and hope."
"Hope for what?" she asked, looking into his eyes.
"That this works," the Doctor said and pulled out a small, silver fragment.
"We have found a way to bring your mother back, but we need the Doctor's help." The copy in the duster stepped backward into line with the procession.
"And I need your help," the Doctor said, reaching for Leena again. She wiped her nose and looked around the hall and back at the TARDIS.
"I, um, feel like there should be some sort of epic musical phrase before I say yes," she said.
"It's a big universe," the Doctor said, helping her up. "I'm sure there's music playing somewhere."
"Sure thing, Red," Leena said, still looking faint. She patted the Doctor's back and almost went down on her knees again.
He helped her back up.